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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Laberge

Silent Sky shoots for the moon, lands among the stars

Silent Sky follows real-life astronomer Henrietta Leavitt in her journey of mapping the stars and measuring the universe at Harvard in the early 20th century. Lauren Gunderson's telling of the story is told through vignettes from Leavitt's family home, to Harvard, to the skies and beyond over the course of many years.

All photos courtesy of Anne Kenny. Left to right: Peter Shaw – Nicholas Callan Haubner, Margaret Leavitt – Sydney Faris, Henrietta Leavitt – Victoria Hudziak, Annie Cannon – Kelly Simon, Williamina Fleming – Stephanie Demyun Smith.

The first thing audiences see is Clayton Irwin's stellar scenic painting. The entire stage floor has been treated with a painting of constellations. This same expert level of visual storytelling is continued by lighting designer Scott Fudali, who explores projection, vibrant color, and realistic interior looks throughout the performance.

Left to right: Margaret Leavitt – Sydney Faris, Henrietta Leavitt – Victoria Hudziak.

Victoria Hudziak is no stranger to tackling the portrayal of leading ladies, and she brings that same fervor to her work as Henrietta Leavitt. The earlier years of the story have a different energy than one might expect; her relationship to her sister (played by Sydney Faris) appears larger in age and maturity gap than the text seems to suggest, and she seems to come into the office at Harvard on a peer level to her colleagues rather than as a newbie. However, it is a delight to see Hudziak bloom into Leavitt's later years in Act II, leading to an emotionally rooted and moving finale performance.

Leavitt's whirlwind romance with Peter Shaw (Nicholas Callan Haubner) follows a similar path. The duo teases back and forth in small moments that suddenly (and without warning) burst into passion. It is almost as unexpected for the audience as it is for the characters. Haubner and Hudziak's tenderest moments, however, are in their character's friendship as they grow into mutual understanding and respect.

Costume designers Sharon Sohner and Ellen Rohr have taken extra care with the accuracy of their work. Perhaps one of the most delightful moments for audiences is the great reveal of the progressive Annie Cannon (Kelly Simon) wearing the controversial garment of the suffragettes: pants! This charming peak into the turn of time adds character and context to the piece.

Left to right: Annie Cannon – Kelly Simon, Henrietta Leavitt – Victoria Hudziak, Williamina Fleming –Stephanie Demyun Smith.

Elements of the scenic design (Michael Talaska) and the direction (Dustin Martin) create some difficulty in the staging. The permanent placement of the desks downstage puts many of the scenes of the show in a position of little to no movement. Then, when scenes need to take place elsewhere, they are made to occur on the platforms upstage. This creates distance from the audience at the points viewers would most want to be closely in on the action.

Overall, the show is colorful playground that turns rural life into academia into outer space with beautiful shifts in visual language. The production is manned by experienced creatives from all fronts, which is evident onstage. It takes a bit of time to warm up, but when it does, Silent Sky is cosmic. The show runs at Waukesha Civic Theatre through February 27th.



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