Friday, October 6, 2017

Next Act Theatre presents "Silent Sky"

Exploring life, legacy & where we are 

Imagine a time in the not-too-distant past — just over 100 years ago — when all we knew was our galaxy‚ our Milky Way. Imagine life before the unfathomable, infinite chasm of space. Nowadays we talk about the possibility of extraterrestrial life; then, they were still mapping the stars and calculating distance to try and determine where our small blue planet is spinning in the grand scheme of things. 

With Lauren Gunderson's Silent Sky, the Next Act Theatre invites us, for a couple of hours, to orient ourselves in a place and time before the 1990 Hubble telescope, before the 1969 moon landing, before the first rocket launch in 1926, and before Edwin Hubble proved the vastness of galaxies far beyond our own in 1923. It's here that we meet mathematician and aspiring astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, played by the always-brilliant Deb Staples. 

The scene is set in the early-1900s Harvard Observatory, where stoic professors peer through their telescope while a team of female "computers" do the busy work of mapping the stars. Henrietta is one such computer, but her insatiable curiosity and passion to discover "where we are" spurs her own research. It's as Carl Sagan said: "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known," and though Henrietta doesn't know what that something is, she burns midnight oil for years in search of the truth.

But Sagan also said that, "For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love." Is it possible to find fulfillment solely in grand, cosmic work? Where do personal intimacy and love fit into the equation for a history-maker like Henrietta Leavitt? Perhaps fostering meaningful relationships and truly living, rather than just observing, offers a different kind of truth. 

To me, there's ample truth on display at Next Act's Silent Sky — the first being the aforementioned brilliance of Deb Staples. With her electric essence and singular ability to transfix audiences, whether by a simple glance or an awe-inspiring monologue, Ms. Staples' spirit and transportive ability is reason enough to see Silent Sky.

Alongside Deb Staples, Next Act has assembled a glorious cast of characters. There's Karen Estrada as Margaret, Henrietta's sympathetic sister and foil, Carrie Hitchcock as the lovable, tough-as-nails Annie Cannon, and Kelly Doherty as the warmly cheeky Williamina. These ladies share a chemistry that's delightful to behold, and knowing they represent real women who achieved great things in a man's world circa 1900 — it's all the more inspiring. 

We're shown over the course of Silent Sky that, when what you do outlasts you, that is star stuff; that's what makes a legacy. Mapping the stars led to the discovery of galaxies, a rocket launch, a man on the moon, a telescope in orbit, and who knows what next. These real-life astronomers planted seeds that grew into mighty oaks. In their own way, this remarkable Next Act ensemble is sowing their own sort of legacy right here in Milwaukee. 

Silent Sky is playing at Milwaukee's Next Act Theatre now through October 22nd. Info and tickets at

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