The play’s framework is epic, with a minimalist set of vertical white cloths and a bare bulb hanging mid stage. Welch’s devices work best when they are in presentational structure. In particular, the repeated conversation between Cecilia and her professor (Jordan Gwiazdowski) regarding her thesis -- which shifts in characterization and timbre - is very effective. It morphs from how she would like to imagine him, a well-meaning advisor hoping to see her work respected and seen, to a sadly more accurate perceptive. It is that of the misogynist doubter who thinks she should revoke her thoughts simply because a young woman couldn’t possibly develop a better answer than those of years past. This succinctly displays the disillusionment that occurs when people become aware of oppression.
More theatrical devices, however, such as the treatment of the male astronomers who employ the women as vaudeville barkers, come off as simplistic and malicious. While there is no trick to convince people that they are the oppressed, the strength of a political work is often found in its ability to compel you to understand yourself as oppressor.
The group of 19th century female astronomers work day in and day out fighting for a living wage in their star mapping and categorizing positions. The presentation of camaraderie between these women in their industry is incredibly affecting. Their altercations are never frivolous, they are intelligent arguments about professional acknowledgment, zeal, and work processes. Each woman is a beautifully written individual. Though initially reduced to their most distinctive feature by the, ironically enough, extremely caricatured men, they become unique and nuanced voices.
All performances have an opportunity to take center stage. Antonia (Ashley Adelman) is ambitious and is a vocal opponent to the second class status of her and her coworkers. It is only when an ambitious Annie (Kaitlyn Huczko) develops a categorization technique that usurps her long fought process that she resigns her position. Laura King Otazo performs Mina as a woman who came into the world of astronomy by appointment rather than interest. Her focus on fair wages for hard work is founded in her position as family matriarch.
Perhaps the most touching of all these characters is that of Alla Illvosa’s Henrietta. A kind hearted woman from a Christian family, she sees God in the stars and because of this exhibits a selfless passion for her work. She develops a theory that apparently could have won her the Nobel prize, were it not for her untimely death. These stories culminate in a heartrending moment where all these women gather to give Henrietta a telescope for her birthday.
The final moments of the play feature three strong endings, though there is perhaps too much time between them for these moments to pack the punch they deserve. The minimalist staging from director Colleen Britt is immensely effective. More time in polishing the set constructions by Terry Gsell, and specifying the projection design for the individual space will render its presentation all the more refined.
Cailtin Cisek’s costume design is beautifully constructed, a historical study but allowing for individual breath. Sound design by Kate Foretek was discreet and aided in the transitions from the magical to historical world. Insignificant is refreshing and empowering. The presentation of women as people of power and as full characters with unique situations and ambitions is, sadly, an all too rare feature in New York theatre. Insignificant is a work made of passion. It is ready to convince you of its belief, its people, and the power that history can have on teaching the present.