Strong Women: For Better or Worse

It’s not so rare today to see a play with a woman as its focal character. Two current Cincinnati productions define opposite ends of the spectrum of admirable and despicable characters.

Apr 20, 2016 at 1:11 pm
click to enlarge Maggie Lou Rader as Henrietta Leavitt in Silent Sky
Maggie Lou Rader as Henrietta Leavitt in Silent Sky

Critic's Picks

It’s not so rare today to see a play with a woman as its focal character. Two current Cincinnati productions define opposite ends of the spectrum of admirable and despicable characters, perhaps demonstrating that gender is not a determinant of behavior.

Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, staged by director Tamara Winters for Know Theatre, is a rapturous portrait of a real woman, Henrietta Leavitt, an aspiring astronomer from a century ago who had to work doubly hard to earn recognition for her scientific insights at a time when men took the lead and women were relegated to support roles.

In 1893, Leavitt was hired by the Harvard College Observatory as a “computer” on a team of women who catalogued and classified stars from images on photographic plates. It was tedious work, but she used the data to connect astral points of light in a pattern that paved the way to assess the expansive size of the universe.

Leavitt was a forthright and energetic woman, and actress Maggie Lou Rader portrays her with luminous energy. She’s bracketed by characters that define the parameters of women’s roles in the era. Her devoted sister Margaret (Miranda McGee) has traditional views of work and religion. The “lunatic women” who are Leavitt’s outspoken scientific colleagues, the warm Williamina Fleming (Regina Pugh) and the starchy suffragette Annie Cannon (Annie Fitzpatrick), provide tart insights regarding the evolving expectations of women.

Peter Shaw (Justin McCombs), the bright, awkward academic who manages the “computers” (or thinks he does), becomes Leavitt’s love interest. It’s a role that could distract from Leavitt’s intellectual momentum, but McCombs plays it with a believable blend of shy humor and admiration that lets us see Leavitt’s more human side.

The success of this production revolves around Rader’s passionate portrait of the zealous astronomer, a woman largely lost in the distant annals of science. (She was considered for a Nobel Prize in 1925 until it was discovered she had died four years earlier.) Silent Sky makes a warm-hearted case for this pioneer’s brilliance and humanity.

• In New Edgecliff Theatre’s production of Neil LaBute’s manipulative play, The Shape of Things, Evelyn (Rebecca Whatley) is another intelligent woman with passion, but her sights are set on a very different outcome. An aspiring artist, she insinuates herself into the life of Adam (Matthew Krieg), an impressionable geek who she reshapes into a more attractive and confident person. What at first seems like genuine affection and caring becomes more and more creepy. How far will this remake go?

Phillip (Carter Bratton), an arrogant friend, questions what’s happening to Adam, but his own misogyny makes him an easy target for Evelyn’s disdain. Phillip’s fiancée Jenny (Leah Strasser) is a potential contrast to Evelyn, sweet and simple, representing an opportunity for a more normal relationship.

LaBute’s plays traffic in complex, often ironic psychological situations. He doesn’t shy away from harsh, even brutal, stories. The Shape of Things requires actors who can handle daunting roles. Evelyn must be attractive in a taunting way, and Whatley pulls that off with cool conviction. As an actor, Krieg must evolve from a schlub to a cool guy who remains dubious that he can make the leap. Krieg handles this trajectory convincingly with witty outbursts that let us see Adam’s more sensitive side. Bratton uses his looks to his advantage, and the mercurial Strasser applies naïve innocence to her role.

When it’s finally revealed what Evelyn has been doing, it’s startling, even if we’ve been uneasy watching her take increasing control of Adam’s life. The audience becomes complicit during the play’s final scene when Evelyn presents her MFA thesis. Director Elizabeth A. Harris seats the other actors in the audience, as if we’re in attendance at a gallery. Their reactions, coming from our midst, make her abusive manipulation feel all the more reprehensible.

You won’t like Evelyn, but you’ll admire how this story unfolds. It’s a compelling, if

disturbing, story about a woman with power.

SILENT SKY continues at Know Theatre

through May 14. THE SHAPE OF THINGS, produced

by New Edgecliff Theatre, continues at Northside’s Hoffner Lodge through April 30.