On occasion, a play comes along with a bit of history, a bit of uncovered history, and that history changes the nature of the universe.
Silent Sky is that sort of play.
Lauren Gunderson’s biography play, Silent Sky, reveals the life and career of one Henrietta Leavitt (Marnie Kanarek), who in 1895 joined the Harvard College Observatory as a volunteer research assistant. Years later, our understanding of the universe would be changed forever.
Joined by a host of other women, two of whom are depicted in Silent Sky, Annie Cannon (Marianne Meyers) and Milliamina Fleming (Mindy Shaw), Leavitt worked as a member of Harvard astronomer Charles Pickering’s “harem”, a title not too appreciated by the dedicated women at the Observatory.
With a Liberal Arts degree from Radcliffe and graduate school credits in astronomy from Harvard, Leavitt was given the task of mapping the night sky using photographic plates taken by the Observatory’s famed Great Refractor Telescope.
Her special assignment focused on the tedious task of cataloguing the relatively rare Cepheid “variable” stars.
Leavitt’s diligence and commitment to research over many years, however, resulted in her discovering more that 2400 such stars with their irregular pulses.
Eventually, Leavitt would figure out the pattern behind the rhythm to their pulses, and that pattern would lead to the standard used in the discovery of thousands of light years of distance between our own Milky Way and the countless other galaxies in our ever expanding universe.
In fact, Edwin Hubble, who has that famous space telescope named after him, would use her work to make some of the most significant early calculations about the unimaginable distances our universe possesses.
To be sure, our three women scientists constitute the heart of Silent Sky. Their robust conversations and interactions about working under a patriarchal science community give the play its central life.
Gunderson focuses on Leavitt’s home life as well, including her married sister Margaret Leavitt (Annie Caruso). The good natured ribbing between the sisters highlights the tension between Henrietta Leavitt’s career ambitions and the domestic responsibilities expected of her by her religious family.
Gunderson goes further, however. The final character is one Peter Shaw (Noah Rich), the young man in charge of Pickering’s “harem”. This love interests adds a final bit of tension, tension between a passion for career and a passion for love.
To be sure, nothing in Henrietta Leavitt’s life suggests that the competition between the two was even close. Ms. Leavitt had a singular passion: the stars.
Silver Spring Stage’s production of Silent Sky, produced by Seth Ghitelman with direction by Bill Hurlbut, is indeed timely, as women’s contributions to the advancement of humanity’s understanding of the world and the universe are enormous.
The more productions that highlight those contributions, the better.
An added bonus with Silent Sky is that it is also both lively and funny, as the women characters in the play seem undeterred by their pre-suffrage manacles.
They are such a positive force in the play you can’t help but cheer them on.
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.