Two plays based on real happenings from the first half of the twentieth century have recently opened in the North Bay. One is new, the work of an up-and-coming young playwright from San Francisco. The other is an American classic. Each production is worthy of attention.
At 6th Street Playhouse, in Santa Rosa, Lauren Gunderson’s enthralling and lovely Silent Sky tells the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a pioneering astronomer whose passion for the stars put her at odds with her devout sister and the male-dominated scientific community within which she worked at Harvard University. Henrietta Leavitt lived from the mid 1800’s to the early 1920s. The play focuses on her years at Harvard.
As a “computer” – the name given to female clerks responsible for charting the skies— Leavitt initially bristles to learn that the male professors will get credit for any discoveries made by her and the other “computers.” Eventually, despite the confusing attentions of her male supervisor, Leavitt defies authority in studying a star pattern that might actually contain a clue to the size and scope of the universe.
As Henrietta, Jessica Headington is wonderful, a blend of the smart and the sweet. Juliet Noonan plays her sister Margaret, and an effectively stiff and quirky Devin McConnell plays Peter. As the two other “computers,” Willamina and Annie, Laura J. Davies and Maureen Studer are a hoot.
Directed with affection and humor by Lennie Dean, Gunderson’s prose is lean, inventive, and captivating, turning the language of science into the stuff of pure poetry. An impressive light design by April George adds to the magic, from the dangling antique light bulbs that stand in for stars, up to the stunning final effect that puts the audience at the center of the universe. The play is not without a few flaws. Its pace slacks in act two, and there are a few moments throughout when the emotion feels forced rather than natural, but on the whole, Silent Sky is a thing of beauty as luminous as the stars its heroine longed so deeply to understand.
Moving on to Healdsburg, and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, the legendary playwright’s his first critical hit. It’s not an easy show to pull off, but Miller’s ingeniously unfolding post-WWII drama gets a solid, emotionally truthful production courtesy of director Carl Hamilton and the Raven Players.
The story is based on an actual event that took place during and after the war. Aging manufacturer Joe Keller (played quite well by Steve Thorpe) lost his youngest son, Larry, in the war. But because the body was never recovered, his wife Kate (an appealingly raw Rebecca Allington) still believes he’s alive. When Joe’s other son Chris (Jeremy Boucher, who is excellent) reveals that he plans to marry Ann (Angela Squire), who was once engaged to Larry, the stage is set for a family conflict with far more at stake than anyone knows. The drama builds as layers of secret and lies are gradually peeled back, exposing wounds and deceptions that threaten to tear the family apart. Though less popular than Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ and ‘The Crucible,’ ‘All My Sons’ stands as one of the playwright’s most accessible and affecting stories.
The Raven Production is flawed, slightly, by casting that puts certain actors in roles too old or too young for them. But with Hamilton’s fine direction, an impressive set by Darius Hamilton and some equally impressive light design by Robin DeLuca, along with the generally outstanding acting of the cast, this adds up to a rich and deeply powerful experience, with an emotional impact that does not soon fade away.
‘Silent Sky’ runs Thursday–Sunday through April 17 in the Studio at 6th Street Playhouse. www.6thstreetplayhouse.com.
All My Sons’ runs Friday–Sunday through April 24 in the Studio at the Raven Performing Arts Center. www.raventheater.org