A strange phenomenon in theater (one of many) is how community theaters that have the word "Little" in their name tend to be some of the largest playhouses in any given town. The cavernous Albuquerque Little Theatre is a perfect example. When I first saw a show by the Los Alamos Little Theatre in January 2018, I thought I'd finally found a small house that fit its name.
Not so, I learned this month. Actress Kathi Collins dropped me a line about the company's latest show, Silent Sky, and invited me up for a tour of the company's home at the Los Alamos Performing Arts Center. The cast and crew was kind enough to put up with my presence at a dress rehearsal, and a brief tour of the facility showed that it could be one of the most impressive community theater facilities I've ever seen.
While the auditorium is small and was clearly built for hobbyist actors in Manhattan Project-era Los Alamos (the theater celebrates its 75th birthday this autumn), simply open a couple side doors, and an expansive back-of-house emerges. It has rehearsal space, costume storage, meeting rooms, two green rooms, a scene shop and more. I felt particularly moved to take a picture of a massive cache of costume shoes organized by color ("But don't worry, there's never a pair in your size," director John Cullinan quipped). The unassuming little building on Nectar Street is a behemoth in disguise—and LALT, with its five-show season, is pretty much the only group that uses it.
Also impressive is the theater's army of volunteer crew members. Silent Sky, a play by Lauren Gunderson with a cast of five, is backed not only by Cullinan and producer John Gustafson, but additionally by more than 30 unseen helpers.
Thirty. As in, 10 times three. Thirty.
Duties include everything from set construction (seven people) to run crew (six people) to a dedicated individual for hair styling (Linda Taylor) and a nine-person board. Anyone who's even dipped a toe into community theater should be absolutely baffled by these numbers.
I asked Collins as she led me around backstage … How? Simply, how? How do they have so many people willing to do so much?
Collins shrugged, saying she honestly didn't know. A hypothesis is that, since Los Alamos has a more conventional (and therefore, unique, for this area) economy and functions in some ways more like a Midwestern nine-to-five community than nearby communities, perhaps there are more traditional family structures there that leave people with more free time in the evenings than do gig economies or communities full of professional artists and actors.
Possibly. But then again, should we really question this? Let's just let it happen.
Speaking of which, Silent Sky is worth the drive up the hill. Playwright Gunderson, who specializes in telling the stories of badass women (her The Revolutionists goes up next month at the Adobe Rose Theatre), introduces us to Henrietta Leavitt, here played by Katrina Koehler. Henrietta grew up in Wisconsin, but fostered dreams of being an astronomer. She lands a gig at the Harvard Observatory, and must leave her sister Margaret (Jess Cullinan) to the family and home duties while Henrietta galavants in the stars. Henrietta meets Peter Shaw (Kevin Pelzel) for a love story that doesn't follow the trajectory you might expect, and is mentored by colleagues Annie Cannon (Andi Bishofberger) and Williamina Fleming (Collins). A small cast makes it easy to keep everyone's stories straight, and the dynamism between characters that could feel too similar is a testament to actors' deep-dives.
From the second she opened her mouth, I recognized Koehler from her portrayal of Annette in God of Carnage in January. The tall, lithe actress' characteristic stage voice reminds me of a slightly breathy, perhaps haughty finishing-school graduate, which felt a little off in Carnage, and took a moment for me to settle into here again—but it shortly felt natural, and even fitting for a character coming up as a young lady in the early 1900s. As she debates whether she should take a job (a job means no marriage, and no marriage means being a spinster—heavens no!), she talks with Margaret about what will happen when she moves to Massachusetts to study the stars.
Margie is a sweet character, at once happy to be at home raising a family and wistful when she pleadingly writes to Henrietta to come home and visit. She plays piano in church and is eventually inspired to compose her own music (kudos to Cullinan, who plays live piano onstage), a terribly quaint thing for a Midwestern housewife to aspire to while her sister is changing our very interpretation of space—but Cullinan doesn't play the character in a pitiful light. Margie has great strength of her own, whether or not she uses it to break the binds of what is expected of women or to change the course of history.
Williamina (Collins) and Annie (Bishofberger) are a really joyous pairing to watch, with great dynamism and plenty of fun quips between them. Forgiven is Collins' sometimes-Scottish sometimes-not accent, as their background action and delivery is spot-on. Pelzel's Shaw is an engaging hero/antihero (depending on the scene), and audio-visual projections and a set full of furniture (made possible by that glorious six-person run crew!) really round out the production.
It's notable that, while Henrietta was a real person, the characters around her are compositions of folks who existed in real life; so this isn't exactly a bio piece. This is noted in the program; further, leave it to the science-minded community of Los to make note of some incorrect scientific terminology in the script. (I'm reminded of a friend from Los Alamos who was particularly irked by the sleek sphere in the Santa Fe Opera's production of Doctor Atomic, saying incredulously: "It looked nothing like the real gadget!") You know that one of these LANL-employee audience members would shift awkwardly in their seat when the script references an impossible declination of a star, so the program says, essentially: "Yes, we know it's wrong, but we're gonna say it anyway."
Overall, Silent Sky is a beautifully written story about a feminism superhero that hardly anyone knows about. The cast at LALT does the script justice, and the dozens of background folks who made it happen, milling around the maze of the performing arts center, are not to be forgotten either.
7:30 pm Friday and Saturday, Sept. 28 and 29. $13-$15. Los Alamos Performing Arts Center, 1670 Nectar St., 662-5493; tickets here.