Short Foray Away: A Good Night Out…Taproot Theater and the Stage Door Cafe

I always look forward to dinner and the theater. Our memories of meeting in Washington State University college acting and production classes always come alive again when Jon and I make plans for this kind of night out. Plus Seattle’s theater scene is pretty robust, offering good children’s productions, Broadway shows, specialty shows, intimate shows and large productions. The tickets can be pricey but there are special ticket deals and offers at most of the theaters. I have mentioned Goldstar as a good source for bargain tickets.

There is always an excitement of expectation with live stage productions – there are so many possibilities: new creative technological touches with clever directing or sometimes staid productions with someone falling off the stage. It takes us out of our video age of a stark reality back to the symbolic nuances of a staged reality. The lights, sets and live performances always remind us of the unique experience theater is: the artistry of it and how intimate and effective this form of storytelling can be.

Dinner: First off…free parking on this short foray away! In Seattle, where that can be a hassle and cost $15 dollars for 2 – 4 hours, this is a nice perk! Since the evening began for us in the Stage Door Café next to The Taproot Theater I will start there. This café is open during the week as well as during plays. It is a spacious café with modern clean lines although I am not a fan of concrete floors and the industrial feel. You sit close to your neighbors and for some that might be annoying. I just make new friends! There is a good little menu with varied offerings. We wanted a good sampling to report on (ok, we were hungry, too!) We split two sandwiches, the turkey with cranberry compote and a BLT on sourdough, a cup of homemade clam chowder, the pear kale salad and a coffee.

Plenty of good food at a good price at the Stage Door Café!

The service was slow – not sure if that is usual or it was an off night. If you are eating and a play is involved plan ahead. The pear salad was a standout. A generous helping, sweet and vinegary, shreds of parm and lots of very nicely candied pecans over very fresh green and purple kale with a whole sliced ripe pear on top! Perfect. The kale was crisp and delicious (not leathery as some kales are) but still a bit hard to spear on my fork at times, so I just picked up pieces and popped them into my mouth. The sandwiches were both ample and good – the turkey gloppy with mayo (can one get too much mayo…maybe a little in this case?…nah….) and melting muenster cheese on a soft white round bun with tart cranberry sauce was just messy goodness. The sourdough BLT was also messy and good…the bread was a good rustic sliced sourdough, with three thick strips of good but salty bacon that could have benefited from some more and sweeter ripe tomato. But, we ate it all and licked our fingers. The green apple garnish was not special or beautiful but with the rich sandwiches was refreshing. The chowder was subtly flavored with herbs and had a fair amount of potatoes and clams. It was not full of clam flavor but the herby notes made it delicious and worth savoring. It was a good soup. There are specials listed on the chalk board.

You can pre-order a treat for intermission, which is nice. Try the (hot molten) chocolate chip cookie served in a little black skillet with a huge dollop of whipped cream. I am going to next time! The couple enjoying theirs during intermission next to me were hardly able to speak, only expressing with rolling eyes and single syllables joy and ecstasy when I inquired how it was!

And, now the theater: The Taproot Theater (here are some general reviews), newly redone in 2014 after a fire, bills itself as “professional theater in a neighborhood setting” and is located in the hopping Greenwood neighborhood in north Seattle. It is an especially intimate playhouse. They are celebrating their 40th anniversary: “… founded in 1976 by six friends, five of them graduates from Seattle Pacific University. From its humble beginnings as a touring group…Today Taproot Theatre serves over 150,000 people annually throughout the Pacific Northwest with its Jewell Mainstage season, Isaac Studio Theatre season, Touring Programs and Acting Studio.” Under the direction of artistic director Scott Nolte this theater is in “…pursuit of artistic excellence guided by a belief in the integrity of values.” Its plays focus on themes of joy, redemption and faith. They have acting classes, touring programs and an early memory loss acting workshop for those in early dementia and their caregivers.

The Jewell Mainstage with its small thrust stage, limited exits and entrances for actors and audiences on three sides demands much creativity of its casts and directors. The artistic staff and actors work with limited options for sets, costumes and blocking. Lighting becomes a major player in a small theater space like this, setting mood and adding special effects. Music is often used. They do 5 main stage shows and usually a Christmas show.

In its first production of its 40th anniversary season all these components come together in the regional premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky. This is the fictionalized story of the very real Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a little know astronomer born in 1868 who made significant findings that were not really recognized in her lifetime. Her life historically touches on many themes relating to women’s issues of that time and some still lingering these many years later in our times: the basic role of women in society, access to higher education, jobs, equal pay, entering academic fields, scientific work by women getting recognized, and the suffragette movement.

Calder Jameson Shilling, Hana Lass and Candace Vance in Silent Sky at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Leavitt also suffered illness most of her life that made her increasingly deaf. Born in a religious family, her father a congregational pastor, Henrietta (ironically nicknamed “Henri” in the play which is just the beginning of the author’s word play) attended Oberlin College, and graduated from Radcliffe College, then called the Society for the Collegiate Instruction for Women, with a bachelor’s degree in 1892. She then went on to get a job at Harvard as a person computing mathematical and astrological data by strict formulas who was called a “computer” (like I said: this is a playwright who uses such facts and some fiction to produce language full of metaphor, double-entendre and puns throughout the play), financed by monies her father provided to secure the position and pay for her livelihood.

The first act dwells on the issues of inequality women faced in late 1800s with striking similarities to today’s demands of balancing of work, motherhood and marriage. Henrietta and her sister Margaret are set in juxtaposition illustrating those issues well. The other two women were real life colleagues of Leavitt and women who made great contributions in astronomy in the field of naming stars. Williamina “Mina” Fleming, the first women hired by the Harvard College Observatory as a computer, is an immigrant Scot and single mother who worked her way from housekeeper to this position. The other is Annie Cannon, portrayed in this play as a serious career woman who is savvy to the prejudices toward women and manages to work around them to advance her career and finally gets involved in the women’s right to vote movement. The playwright introduces a love interest Peter Shaw, the overseer of these women’s work at Harvard, who manages the women’s work and that heightens the conflicts of womanhood for Henrietta.

The second act brings us to the plight of the now sickly Henrietta, abandoned by love, successful but unrecognized in making a scientific discovery that would change astronomy theory forever. One wonders how many other Henriettas has our culture and history mistreated. Ironically, Leavitt died of a women’s disease, ovarian cancer, at a relatively young age.

This is a story that deserves to be told. For that reason the production is significant. I was disappointed that the script wandered from the real life version and muddied the waters of Leavitt’s life and accomplishments to make points about women in general, but in the end it worked. The points were worth making.

Kim Morris and Hana Lass in Silent Sky. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Kim Morris playing the character of Mina Fleming brought enthusiasm, a joyful pointedness in her line delivery and comedic effects that added much to the play. Her accent was wonderful. Hana Lass as Henrietta was starry-eyed, strident and scrappy much of the show, relying on a solid style of acting. Calder Jameson Shilling as the love interest Peter Shaw, in his professional debut, was not given much to work with in terms of lines. His acting as the overseer of the women’s employment and eventually a respectful colleague of Henrietta resonated. But as a love interest I found him corny and wanting. As written, hardly a love interest worthy of a woman of Leavitt’s intelligence. Candace Vance’s portrayal of Henrietta’s sister Margaret Leavitt, representing the everywoman of domesticity and her balancing act as daughter, sister, mother and wife works effectively in its soft, yet very endearing way. Nikki Visel as the other real life “computer” Annie Cannon is good. She evolves from sternly business-like but smart and enterprising into a strident suffragette who finally wears pants (gasp!). Henrietta Leavitt also blazed a trail by being able to do much of her work at home.

The lighting by Amanda Sweger is interesting and arresting as a combination of rear and front projections create many interesting scenes of stars and sky, the topic which this play is so centered on as symbol and reality. Lighting by the end of the play becomes one of the stars of the production. The costumes are crisp and of the era, simple and effective. The set is well done and extremely sparse and simple.

Karen Lund, director and also Assistant Artistic Director of this theater, presented a competent production about compelling women and an era that sent me out of the theater to Google more. I felt she missed some opportunities with the script and actors. Some of the lines that could have had extra punch and meaning were left hidden behind a rather didactic delivery. The first act suffered most because of this and seemed a little over-long. Lund used blocking to great effect especially during the epistolary scenes between Margaret and Henrietta and Peter and Henrietta. The ending is creative and wraps up this story fittingly, and literally ends on the note of Henrietta’s saying in the play several times: “Send more sky.”

The Final Word: This is an enjoyable evening out. This is a solid theater piece with important little known history and timeless messages…a production about a real woman of substance, Henrietta Leavitt, that bears telling! Go for a good dinner costing $40 (plus gratuity) for two at the Stage Door Café and stay for a good play, Silent Sky at the Taproot Theater, running Wednesday-Saturday until February 27th  that will introduce you to the special Leavitt, her work on variable stars, the Cepheid variable period-luminosity relationship…the state of women, their work, roles and equality in the late 19th early 20th centuries and still today! Tickets range from $20 to $47. And do not forget free parking for a three hour short foray!

NOTE: This play is appropriate for ages 12 and over. I think young women would really enjoy this if you have a young friend, daughter or granddaughter to introduce to this interesting subject matter and topics. There are special free play discussions that might be of interest after every Wednesday performance (excluding Preview) and after Midweek Matinee February 2 at 2:00 and Feb 10 at 10am performances. There will also be a free discussion on Tuesday, February 16th.

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