Produced by: City Lights Theatre Company
Directed by: Mark Anderson Phillips
Featuring: Maria Giere Marquis, Jessica Whittemore, George Psarras, April Green, Karen DeHart
When: May 16-June 16, 2019
Where: City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose
Tickets: $23-$44. Visit cltc.org or call 408-295-4200.
to bring a powerful story to the stage
The first time Maria Giere Marquis read Lauren Gunderson’s script for “Silent Sky,” “I just started crying, because it is beautiful, an important story. Luckily, they (City Lights) let me do it.
“Every time we do it (in rehearsal), I find something else in it — every time we do it, I am very moved by the historical characters we play. All three of these women made incredible discoveries. They did the work, they loved it, they were brilliant.”
The three women were Henrietta Leavitt, Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon. Marquis plays Leavitt, who is initially unhappy when she goes to work for astronomer Edward Pickering, because in 1900, women weren’t allowed to use the big telescopes.
Instead, the three women are put to work measuring and cataloging the brightness of stars on photographic plates. Fleming and Cannon had already made advances in the work, and when Leavitt comes along, she works very long (and unpaid) hours and eventually develops a means to measure the brightness of stars and their distance from Earth.
Henrietta tells Williamina she has issues with science. "The whole of it?" Williamina asks. "We do not appear to know where we are. Astronomically," Henrietta says. "Which is shocking. ... We've been looking up for millenia and we don't know how far away those stars are? We don't know if the Milky Way is the universe? That's just unacceptable."
"You're fun," Williamina responds. "But here's some perspective. I was Pickering's housekeeper before he brought me here. So we're a lot of things, but at present we are cleaning up the universe for the men. And making fun of them behind their backs. It's worked for centuries."
There are reasons why people love Gunderson’s plays.
“It’s very profound about making space for those stories to be told, how Lauren uses language, to express love or connections,” said Marquis. “It’s a well-written play, realistic without being too gritty.”
Famous astronomer Edwin Hubble late expanded on Leavitt’s ideas, saying she deserved a Nobel Prize for her work. She died before anyone actually bothered to nominate her, however.
The play also includes a little romance for Leavitt, but perhaps even better, a story of her relationship with her sister, Margaret. While Leavitt was always off at college, pursuing knowledge, Margaret wanted to stay home and make a family.
“One of the things I love about the sister relationship,” said Marquis, “is two women made different decisions about life, but neither thinks that other has made a mistake. … she (Gunderson) lets the two of them have mutual respect. It’s beautiful.”
In this production, Margaret is played by Jessica Whittemore, a Stanford research analyst who has been known previously as star of musicals. This is, in fact, her first straight play, and she has been posting on Facebook about her excitement, and the excellence of her cast mates and director.
“Jessica is absolutely lovely,” said Marquis. We are having a wonderful time.”
Directing is Mark Anderson Phillips, one of the best actors and directors in the Bay Area.
“I am huge fan,” said Marquis. “I gotta follow this guy around! He is an incredible artist, ridiculously talented, and a lovely person to be around. … He brings so much care about what he does. He goes deep, how do we bring this together, has an awareness of creating an environment where people can do their work.”
Anderson Phillips directed “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at City Lights in 2015. That production was brilliant and electrifying.
Marquis is also a City Lights veteran, having played in “Making God Laugh” in November.
She spends part of her work week running her own firm, which does instructional design. Most of her week goes to rehearsing for or performing in plays.
“I cannot remember when playing pretend was not my favorite thing,” Marquis said. “Being with my imagination was always my favorite thing to do. So, mom got season tickets to the children’s theater, then academy. I fell in love with acting, did it all through school.
“I love stories. I find people fascinating. I love sharing stories, giving people a space to forget what’s happening outside. Imagination is my favorite thing.”
When Marquis was 10, growing up in Southeast Wisconsin, she set a bucket-list item: playing Lady Macbeth. Which she got to do, finally, at age 32, in March, at the Dragon Theatre in Redwood City.
It was part of the Dragon’s Second Stage series, in which actors and production crews bring an idea, get it vetted, then bust their humps to make it happen. In this case, the cast of eight did all the production work for this “Macbeth,” before the show and during the show, with some help from one other person, a designer.
And Marquis was excellent as the bloody Lady Macbeth.
“It was an incredible experience,” said Marquis. “I’ve wanted to do the role since I was 10. The process with the ensemble, building the play from the ground up, was amazing.”
The casting for “Silent Sky” is also pretty impressive. In addition to Marquis and Whittemore, George Psarras is on hand as Peter Shaw, April Green is Annie Jump Cannon, and Karen DeHart is Williamina (who gets a lot of funny lines).
Gunderson is the most produced living playwright in the United States, with an incredible library of plays. City Lights presented “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” in 2015, “I and You” in 2016, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly” (written with Margot Melcon) in 2017, and now “Silent Sky.” City Lights plans to present “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberly” (also written with Melcon), in November 2020.