By Barry Willis
Imagine toiling away for years squinting at black-and-white photographic plates of the night sky and trying to track changes that might provide clues to the nature of the universe. That’s what pioneering mathematician/astronomer Henrietta Leavitt did at Harvard University Observatory for approximately twenty years until she was finally allowed to look through the telescope.
Her obsession with astronomy led to a major breakthrough in human understanding of the universe, lovingly depicted in Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky at Lucky Penny Productions through May 7.
… a lovely heart-warming production…
Taking place primarily at Harvard University Observatory in the early 1900s, the story portrays Henrietta Leavitt’s success in astronomy through sheer enthusiasm and determination, despite having hearing impairment, assorted medical issues, family strife, and at least one romantic disaster. She faced opposition by the scientific establishment of the era — men who refused to accept that a young woman hired to analyze photographic plates of the night sky could be so insightful.
While this may sound like a polemical piece with appeal only to ardent feminists or students of the history of science, it’s actually a fantastically compelling story based very much on real people and real events, with appeal to a broad audience.
Gunderson wrote Silent Sky on commission for Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory company. It debuted at the 2011 Pacific Playwrights Festival and has been performed often since. Lucky Penny’s production is among the best of several that this critic has seen.
Heather Buck brings an engaging blend of insistence and vulnerability to the character of Henrietta, only the third woman to be hired by the Harvard Observatory to do computational tasks. Even though she insisted from the beginning that her profession was “astronomer,” Leavitt labored for many years until she was permitted to look through the observatory’s telescope, after her contributions to the field had become incontrovertible.
Wearing a bulky all-acoustic hearing aid, Buck delivers Henrietta’s lines emphatically in keeping with her character’s hearing impairment. It’s a nicely consistent bit of verisimilitude, unlike Gunderson’s use of contemporary idioms, which may lend the drama immediacy for modern audiences but sound badly inauthentic to those with an ear for such things. For example, early in the play, Henrietta’s research associate Annie Cannon instructs Henrietta to “input data” into a paper log book. Later, trying to explain to her sister Margaret (Andrea Dennison-Laufer) her relationship with her supervisor Peter Shaw (Dennis O’Brien), Henrietta says “It’s complicated.” Both of these phrases, and some others scattered throughout the script, are recent and not something that anyone would have said one hundred years ago.
Henrietta’s feisty, opinionated colleagues and mentors Williamina Fleming and Annie Cannon are brought to roaring life by Titian Lish and LC Arisman, respectively. A secondary but important plot has Annie campaigning for women’s right to vote. Late in the show she shocks her colleagues not only by sporting her suffragette sash, but by actually wearing pants.
Dennison-Laufer brings an understated complexity to the role of Margaret Leavitt, Henrietta’s long-suffering and somewhat manipulative sister who’s been left to care for their ailing preacher father back in Wisconsin. Dennis O’Brien, known for outrageous antics in other shows, is fantastically subtle as Shaw, a research administrator who vacillates between disdainful distance and emotional neediness in his relationship with Henrietta. The budding but blunted love affair between the two awkward scientists is enacted with elegant sensitivity.
Barry Martin’s simple evocative set creates ample impressions of the interior of the observatory, a Wisconsin farmhouse, a ship at sea and other locations, with minimal prop changes. The backdrop of the night sky is especially effective. Barbara McFadden’s costumes are period-appropriate and somewhat frumpy, as might be expected of academics toiling away a century ago.
Some information about the play describes it as being about “the first female astronomers.” It’s clearly about the first female American astronomers, but certainly not the absolute first. Curious stargazers may wish to check out the 2009 film Agora, starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia of Alexandria, the Egyptian philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who discovered elliptical orbits 2,000 years before Johannes Kepler.
Adroitly directed by Dyan McBride, Lucky Penny’s Silent Sky is a lovely heart-warming production. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never regard the stars the same way again.
|Lucky Penny Productions
|Thru May 7th
|Lucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
|Max in each category is 5/5
|Aisle Seat Review Pick?
|"Overall, "Silent Sky" is a fast-moving two hours of theater that anyone who loves astronomy or the history of science will enjoy."
|"Physics Today" website
|"...Lauren Gunderson’s touching, poignant “Silent Sky”...is deeply affecting, important and relevant for many reasons..."
|Our Quad Cities
|"...Although "Silent Sky" deals with matters of science and math, which may sound off-putting to some, it’s nevertheless instantly accessible..."
|"...In Lauren Gunderson's "Silent Sky," Leavitt's story unfolds with a beauty and complexity worthy of the skies she mapped..."
|Chicago Sun Times -- (they rated the play "Highly Recommended.")