One has a starry expanse as backdrop, the other a claustrophobic jury room, but both plays running this weekend may make their audiences think about their place in the world.
The stars watch wordlessly in the Waco Civic Theatre’s “Silent Sky,” Lauren Gunderson’s play about pioneering, but unsung women astronomers. And a cast of 12 provides the drama in Baylor Theatre’s “12 Angry Jurors,” updated to a contemporary Waco.
For “Silent Sky” director Melissa Green, Gunderson’s play brings both a tinge of sadness and a breath of hope. “Silent Sky” follows the story of Henrietta Leavitt (Jamie Coblentz), who with colleagues Williamina Fleming (Laura Meier-Marx) and Annie Cannon (Margaret Rast), late 19th century researchers at the Harvard University observatory, who made the crucial observations and calculations that underpinned new theories of the universe’s size and structure.
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Because of their time and their sex, however, their work long went unrecognized by the men in the field. The women, in fact, were initially hired as “calculators,” tasked with measuring the movement of tiny dots — stars and galaxies — on photographic plates. It was tedious work requiring extended focus that the observatory director thought women were more suited to do.
What women weren’t suited for was the status, and mental work, of an astronomer, the director felt. Hours spent observing and measuring the stars whose light was captured on glass plates led Leavitt and her associates to new discoveries about the universe’s size and stars’ lifetimes, even as their pursuit of career was at variance what their culture expected for them.
“Everything we know about the stars in our galaxy was due to these women,” Green explained. “These women made amazing discoveries and their work made possible what Einstein and (astronomer Edwin) Hubble did.”
Gunderson supplants the historical figures in her play with fictional characters, inventing a sister for Henrietta, Margaret (Kami Yasko), and a love interest, Peter Shaw (Ethan Trueman).
As part of the characters’ background preparation, Baylor University geology professor Sharon Browning, faculty advisor for the university’s astronomy club, led a stargazing party to give actors a sense of their characters’ work. The female astronomers also provide a model of empowerment that Green, program senior specialist for the Girl Scouts of Central Texas, said should encourage girls and women today.
Science is the backdrop of Gunderson’s play, but the core of “Silent Sky” is a story of human love, loss and unrecognized achievement. “It will tug at your heart strings” Green said.
“Silent Sky” opens a two weekend run Friday night at the Waco Civic Theatre and several performances are nearing a sellout. Tickets are available online at wacocivictheatre.com.
Tickets are sold out for all five performances of Baylor Theatre’s “12 Angry Jurors,” which continues its performances in Theatre 11, the black box theater of Baylor’s Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center.
Baylor theater lecturer and director Sam Henderson has taken “12 Angry Jurors,” Reginald Rose’s adaptation of his 1954 teledrama “12 Angry Men” that broadened its cast beyond white men, and tweaked it a little more with permission of the publisher.
“It’s a very well-known, well-done play and a high school staple. If you weren’t in it in high school, your dad or granddad was,” he said. “I wanted to bring out a certain amount of intimacy in the play.”
The play follows the dynamics of a jury discussing a murder case where a young man, unlike the jurors in class, social standing and implied race, is accused of killing his father. The first informal vote finds near unanimity in the man’s guilt, but a skeptical juror forces his fellows to reexamine the details of the testimony and their opinions start to shift.
To bring the play closer to both his cast and audience, Henderson threw in references to Baylor, Magnolia, Waco and McLennan County. He also had his 12-person cast step away from a focus on playing a specific character to more how they’d react personally. “The greatest challenge for the actors, believe it or not, was to convince them to be themselves,” he said.
With the action in the center of the Theatre 11 stage, flanked on two sides by the audience, there’s a minimum of props used. Theatrical devices used to show age, such as wigs or hair dusted with powder, were avoided.
Henderson, who is Black, hopes the play feels to the audience more real than staged. “I want the audience to feel that it’s not easily let off the hook. ... I think this play is an experiment in examining the rate of social change and the role that intimation, sound argument and common sense play. What does ‘fair’ actually mean in the court of law? What would it take to be truly ‘fair?’”
Although sold out, the box office keeps a waiting list for those wanting tickets. Call 254-710-1865 for information.