Leading Stories

by Aubrey Shelton, Staff Writer

In a stellar display of student talent and technical prowess, the UWF Theatre department’s production of “Silent Sky” sheds a little starlight on an untold story, stealing the hearts of its viewers and bringing the heavens down to the Earth.

Director Marci Duncan, with a small cast and crew, brought the story of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt to the stage in the form of a play by Lauren Gunderson, a brightly intelligent romantic comedy that takes its audience on an emotional journey.

“Silent Sky” follows Leavitt from the time she gets hired at Harvard to her untimely death of cancer, including her struggles against an adamantly male academic community, her discovery of a system to measure the distance between stars and her doomed love of Peter Shaw.

Along the way, audiences are introduced to the characters Margaret, Leavitt’s fiery younger sister; Annie, the stern head of Harvard’s team of “women astronomers”; and Williamina, the Scottish maid-turned-astronomer who never shies away from speaking her mind.

These four characters and their respective actresses share a bond of sisterhood that permeates and pushes the plot forward, each one lifting the others towards their individual aspirations.

Opposite these strong-willed heroines is the awkward and initially weak-willed Peter Shaw who, at first, views astronomy as his job and nothing more.

Shaw spends the play in a state of constant change, as meeting Leavitt started something in his heart that caused him to see the value in his work and, later, her value to him, until their relationship stagnates and ends as he becomes far less awkward and far more aggressive.

These rapid changes can be difficult for an actor to portray in a natural manner, but these students managed to pull off a performance so realistic that it was difficult to separate them from their characters.

Actress Lena Sakalla, while portraying Leavitt, embodied the character by naturally transitioning from emotion to emotion in a seamless manner.

In the same vein, actor Noah Peacock, who played Shaw, had small tics and nervous habits that helped the audience to identify his anxious nature from his first appearance, without seeming over the top or abnormal.

Additionally, Sakalla and Peacock were able to work together and display lessons learned from Duncan’s classes, acting at a synchronized level and arguing in a way that felt realistic. Their until their voices shook the theater.

While the actor’s performances were stunning from the perspective of the audience, the performance was imperfect in its own right.

To begin, all sounds that were not made by an actor showed an unprofessional standard, featuring varying sound qualities and tracks that seemed out of place, all pointing to the university’s need for theatrical sound design students.

This show did not have a sound designer credited, meaning that the sound was compiled by a student to the best of their abilities, but that they were likely not coached beyond making it sound passable enough to not detract from the experience.

On the side of the actors, there were several times where the trained eye could catch a small mistake or technical error onstage.

To their credit however, each actor was able to recover and ad lib in such a way that made these things seem like they were right out of the script, much to the delight of the audience.

Some of these improvised lines and small asides inspired a sense of comedy that would be sorely lacking without them.

One thing that was applied incredibly well was the lights, which were designed by Joshua Heming, a junior studying technical theatre. The application accented the acting in a particularly beautiful manner.

Normally, plays attempt to shy away from playing with shadows in favor of spotlighting each actor as they move across the stage, but “Silent Sky” used a vast array of brightnesses and colors to bring out the emotional tone of each line, some of which are delivered in almost complete darkness.

In some scenes, the lights dim until the stage is lit in only a trace of blue while the curtains and catwalks above the stage sparkle with countless tiny lights.  Looking up, it felt as if there was no ceiling, only the light of the moon accompanied by millions of stars looking down on the audience.

This was later contrasted in the final scene, when the characters come onstage for one last time to reveal what happened to each of them following Leavitt’s death.

The lights steadily shine brighter and brighter, growing with each line until the entire stage is bathed in gold, Leavitt herself in a dress decorated with the night sky, shining brighter than anyone else.

Through both brilliance and blunder, “Silent Sky” is a stunning example of everything our fine arts students have to offer.  From the sets to the costumes, the lights to the acting, this show samples and proudly displays everything that those involved are learning here at UWF.