Friday marked the reprisal at Silver Spring Stage of a very timely Silent Sky, by Laura Gunderson. Produced by Seth Ghitelman and directed by Bill Hurlbut, it is the fascinating story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an American astronomer who started working at Harvard in 1893 as an astronomer, but eventually, as her genius permeated the invisible lines drawn for women by society, she discovered the relation between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars. 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 award winning movie about more recent female mathematicians, Hidden Figures, and follows Leavitt’s journey from her early days at Harvard until her death at age 53.
Director Hurlbut brings us a drama that not only awes, but makes us laugh often and loudly. I still had a tear in my eyes.. at the end of my second viewing of the play. His all-star cast interacts each other with beautifully. Hurlbut uses both modern technology and traditional stagecraft to create this universe.
Marnie Kanarek reprises her role as Henrietta Leavitt, and is the center of Gunderson’s universe. We watch as Kanarek goes through a metamorphosis from the young and plucky woman from Wisconsin, fighting the odds to go to Harvard and work measuring stars to the middle-aged woman who is still trying to understand her place and ours in the world. Her emotions, including grief, anger, love and frustration, mirror 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 again as Margaret Leavitt, the sister who encourages Henrietta’s voyage but expresses to us her own losses and burdens while Henrietta is making her mark. Some of the most moving scenes are between the two sisters, particularly when Henrietta returns to their farm due to a family emergency. Happily, it is Margaret’s love of music and her own genius that provides the last piece of the puzzle of Henrietta’s amazing discovery.
Marianne Meyers as Annie Cannon and Mindy Shaw as Williamina Fleming are Henrietta’s coworkers and unflappable friends. Meyers continues to show the feisty Annie but Meyers allows us to quickly see the strong woman who has to deal with men in this late Victorian world where women are expected to marry and raise children, not grow as professionals. Shaw’s Williamina is still a good portion of the comic relief and the Scottish astronomer is always able to inspire levity even in sadder moments in the plot.
Amid all these shining female performances, Noah Rich as Peter Shaw, the young assistant 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. Rich seems much more comfortable in his role this time around, and his performance in even more textured.
The set, by Andrew Greenspan, which was carefully put away after the last show in February, includes two projection screens which are moved out during the play as platforms come in to create the farm in Wisconsin and Henrietta’s 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. Steve Deming is credited with those wonderful designs that open the universe to the characters and the audience. The few tiny bugs from the last opening seem to have been fixed.
Don Slater masterfully designed the lights which include a ceiling of stars as the play ends. The period costuming was expertly designed by Maria V. Bissex and a special nod to Sally Cusenza for her make-up and hair design. Eric Small, Sound Designer, allows the music to transport us to Henrietta’s world where music and science blend.
If you missed Silent Sky the first time around, make sure you get there next weekend. Climb aboard to be transported back in time and enjoy the view.
Running Time: Two hours with a 15-minute intermission.