Review: “Transit of Venus” (Saint Sebastian Players)

Heather Smith and Renata Martynuk Saxon McAdams/Photo: Saint Sebastian Players.

Show: “Transit of Venus”

Company: Saint Sebastian Players

Venue: St. Bonaventure (1625 W Diversey Pkwy)

Die Roll: 6

The human heart is as mysterious as the heavens in “Transit of Venus,” a drama that showcases how obsession and ambition can eternally stall one’s life. Based on the true story of Guillaume Le Gentil’s tracking of Venus, Maureen Hunter’s play, currently in production by the Saint Sebastian Players, follows everyday patterns as well as celestial ones. And while this current incarnation of the story showcases one excellent performance and a keen sense of wit, the dividends do not make up for the script’s repeated beats and predictable conclusion.

Le Gentil (Jake Baker) plans to serve God by assisting the French government in measuring the distance from the Earth to the sun. In order to accomplish this, he must chart the transit of the planet Venus, and in the 1760s, one can only do that on a sailing journey. As his assistant Desmarais (Leo LaCamera) packs for the voyage, Le Gentil must say goodbye to his mother (Maggie Speer), break off an affair with housemaid Margot (Renata Martynuk Saxon McAdams), and declare his love for her daughter Celeste (Heather Smith). As Celeste predicts, danger arises on his journey, and Le Gentil is kept from home and a promise of marriage repeatedly while tracking Venus.

Hunter’s script runs three acts, and that is too long for pretty much any drama written after 1965. (Her script hails from 1992.) The three most important scenes of the play involve Le Gentil and Celeste, and their ongoing debate about whether his dreams are destructive to their future. One could string those sequences together to build a fine, time-jumping one-act. But I must take the play on its own merits, rather than imposing my structural instincts on the work. That said, I have to admit that where we land at the end of the play is set up so clearly by the end of the first act, there is little dramatic tension in watching events unfold. Hunter gifts her characters fiery spirits and sharp tongues (particularly in the cases of Smith and Speer), but their arguments about who gets to leave the country when struggle to connect to present-day questions of inequality and opportunity. Thus, the play feels older than its 1992 publishing date, and has less to offer the audience than it promises.

Smith as Celeste represents the production’s beating heart. When we first glimpse her, she throws herself about a drawing room, moping in all her teenage glory over her loved one’s departure. As each act progresses, and Celeste ages, so does Smith’s physical and emotional life. By the time we hit act three, she has matured beyond Le Gentil’s understanding, and her command of the same drawing room she flounced about before is telling. Smith knows that Celeste is the one most affected by Le Gentil’s projects, and she embodies the weight of her love well across the play.

Director Kaitlin Taylor is smart to let her actors perform the play in contemporary style. The dialogue is semi-heightened, and the costume and set design could lead to broader presentational performances. Taylor always grounds the actors in the emotional turmoil of each scene, but she diminishes the play’s impact by staging two of its most important scenes far upstage in an observatory setting. Far from the audience, Smith and Baker’s expressions are hard to read, as they wrestle with their relationship to one another. The quiet moments they share are also hard to hear, so it becomes difficult to care about their romance later on.

“Transit of Venus” asks some elementary questions about how we value those we love in relationship to our chosen purpose. Though the play does not surprise, it does embrace the uncertainty of romance, and draw the audience into asking larger questions — even when the answers are not satisfying. That seems somehow appropriate, since Le Gentil and Celeste end up so unsatisfied themselves.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Astronomer seeks uncomplaining wife, but gets an independent woman instead.

RATING: d8 — “Not Bad, Not Great”