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Review: ‘Silent Sky’ at Silver Spring Stage

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Friday marked the opening at Silver Spring Stage of a very timely drama, Silent Sky, by Laura Gunderson.

Produced by Seth Ghitelman and directed by Bill Hurlbut, Silent Sky is the fascinating story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an American astronomer who started working at Harvard in 1893 as a “human computer.” Eventually, as her brilliance permeated the invisible lines drawn for women by society, she discovered the relation between the luminosity of Cepheid variable stars and the rhythm of their pulsing. This discovery allowed scientists to discover faraway galaxies, and was directly linked to the discoveries of Edwin Hubble.

This play premiered in 2010, long before the acclaimed popular movie about more recent women of science, Hidden Figures, and follows Leavitt’s journey from her early days at Harvard until her death at age 53.

Marnie Kanarek (Henrietta Leavitt). Photo by Harvey Levine.

Director Bill Hurlbut brings us a drama that not only awed me –  but also made me laugh often and loudly; it even caused me to tear up. His all-star cast orbit each other with precision and his uses both modern technology and traditional stagecraft to create this universe.

The real star of this galaxy of talent is Marnie Kanarek as the center of gravity, Henrietta Leavitt, around whom the other characters revolve. Kanarek transforms herself from a young and plucky woman from Wisconsin, fighting the odds to go to Harvard, to her work and research, to the woman who is still trying to understand her place in the universe. Her emotions, including grief, anger, love, and frustration, reflect those of many of the thousands of other women who were and are allowed to participate in a man’s world- but only on a man’s terms.

Her supporting cast includes Annie Caruso as Margaret Leavitt, the sister who encourages Henrietta’s voyage, but expresses to us her own losses and burdens she endures while Henrietta is making her mark.  Some of the most moving scenes were those between the two sisters when Henrietta returns to their farm due to a family emergency. It is Margaret’s love of music and her own genius that provides the last piece of the puzzle to Henrietta’s amazing discovery.

Marianne Meyers (Annie Cannon) and Mindy Shaw (Williamina Fleming) play Henrietta’s coworkers and fellow voyagers on her trip to the stars.  Meyers’ feistiness is first seen as harsh, but Meyers allows us to see quickly the strong woman who has to deal with men in this late Victorian world – where women are expected to marry and raise children – and not grow as professionals.

Shaw’s Williamina is funny and often keeps light the souls of her workmates even at deeper moments in the plot. Her Scottish accent (under the dialect coaching of Gary Sullivan) is consistent and lyrical.

Amid all these shining female performances, Noah Rich delivers a shimmering performance as Peter Shaw, who is almost immediately mesmerized by the light that glows from Henrietta  As Shaw, Rich shows us both sides of the men’s opinions from that era. He is dominated by the three women but still has much respect for their accomplishments. At other times, Shaw still is unwilling to give up male domination in the world of astronomy or society.

The set by Andrew Greenspan includes two projection screens which are moved out during the play as platforms. They create the farm in Wisconsin and Henrietta home in Boston. The screens provide other backgrounds – the Leavitt’s church, a large telescope and, of course all those millions of stars and nebulae.

The cast of ‘Silent Sky.’ Photo by Harvey Levine.

Steve Deming is credited with those wonderful designs that open the universe to the characters and the audience. Don Slater masterfully designed the lights. The period costuming was expertly designed by Maria V. Bissex and a special nod to Sally Cusenza for her make-up and hair design. Sound Designer Eric Small allows the music to transport us to Henrietta’s world where music and science blend.

This trek into the stars will lift your soul and broaden you mind. Don’t miss this mission into the mysteries of our hearts, brains and universe.

Running Time: Two hours with an Intermission.

Silent Sky plays weekends through February 4, 2017, at Silver Spring Stage – 10145 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD, located in the Woodmoor Shopping Center. For tickets, purchase them at the box office, or online

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