Colonial Players’ production of Silent Sky is a beautiful combination of wonderful acting, direction, lighting, and sound. The 2011 play, written by Lauren Gunderson, is based on the real-life stories of women researchers at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s, who made remarkable contributions to astronomy despite fierce opposition and discrimination. This version, directed by Gwen Morton, is an excellent way to start off the new year.
Emilie Zelle Holmstock gives a passionate intensity to Henrietta Leavitt, a young woman determined to work at the Harvard Observatory. She stands up to Dr. Shaw’s (Tyler Heroux) hemming and hawing, backing him into the bookcase and throwing herself into her work, even sleeping at her desk. Watching her work on a scientific problem is fascinating, as her emotion is evident on her face, whether it is frustration at not finding a pattern, hurling notebooks to the ground, or shock and joy at discovering the answer.
Robin Schwartz plays Henrietta’s sister Margaret with great strength. She challenges Henrietta at almost every step, asking why she needs to go to Harvard. They fight like sisters but quickly make up and support each other. While Henrietta is working, they speak to each other through letters, the resentment of a long silence showing on Schwartz’s face. After a family tragedy forces Henrietta to return home, they comfort and hold each other as they sit outside. They both shed plenty of tears.
Tyler Heroux gives a quiet awkwardness to Peter Shaw, the astronomy professor at Harvard. Although nominally in charge of the women, he is no match for them. He runs in and out of the office full of nervous energy, hesitatingly asking them various questions. Although annoying at first, especially when he jokingly calls the women a “harem,” he soon becomes charming as he and Henrietta begin to know each other. At the start of Act II though, he is distant and irritable towards the women, even screaming at them at one point. It is a powerful, shocking moment.
Shannon Benil gives a firm strength to Annie Cannon, Henrietta’s fellow researcher. She initially comes off as cold and distant, reminding the women that “talking isn’t working”. She quickly shows her protective side, throwing Peter out of the office as he interrupts them with a needless question. She allows Henrietta to undertake her own research project, then gives her helpful advice when she is frustrated at her lack of progress. At the end, she is full of passion for the suffragette movement, energetically promoting the idea of women banding together for equality.
Beth Terranova plays Williamina Fleming with a strong sense of humor. She is always making sly jokes, casting light on the fact that their work is directly responsible for advances in astronomy, yet the men take all of the credit for it. In her words, they are the seeds that give rise to “the mighty oak.” After Peter’s outburst she angrily slams the table, reminding him of the importance of their work.
Heather Quinn and Peter Branscombe do wonderful jobs as Set Designer and Properties Designer, incorporating several different locations on one stage. On the left is the Observatory offices, with a long bench and chairs on the right, piled with scientific plates and charts. To the left is a small bookcase with books and a file folder filled with documents. In the middle is a field of grass. Off to the right—offstage—is part of Margaret’s home, with a piano. At times, they bring out chairs to the edge of the stage.
Lighting Designer Ernie Morton uses lighting effects with incredible creativity, for instance, helping to separate the stage in one scene as Henrietta moves between the offices and Margaret’s home. During a dream sequence, the lights focus just on Henrietta and Peter, the rest of the stage dark until the scene ends abruptly with the lights quickly and harshly turning up. As Henrietta addresses the audience in the beginning and at the end, the spotlight shines on her. In one powerful scene, the lights flash to resemble the twinkling of the stars.
Sound Designer Richard Atha-Nicholls uses sound remarkably well, particularly in one scene, throwing out the imagined sound of pulsing stars to beautiful effect. The projections by Eric Hufford are tremendously well-done, projected onto screens on the theater walls. Usually they are images of the starry night sky, sometimes shifting as if the earth were rotating; other times, they are different galaxies, proof that “the universe is vast.” In one scene, as the women enter information into a star chart, it shows up on the screens.
Costume Designer Carrie Brady creates outfits with the feel of the early 1900s. Henrietta wears a purple jacket and long blue skirt with a brown striped shirt and a beige sweater. Margaret wears a long gray skirt and white shirt. Annie has a black skirt, white shirt and black vest with a red coat. At the end, she wears black pants and a blue dress shirt. Williamina has a long gray skirt, gray shirt, and a black vest. Peter is all in brown, from his pants to his jacket.
Gwen Morton has done a fantastic job as director. The actors move effortlessly among themselves and the different parts of the set, and they always make it clear where they are. They easily convey the scientific parts of the story, letting even scientifically challenged audience members like myself understand both how they arrive at their discoveries and why they are important. Silent Sky has been called a Hidden Figures for the early 1900s female astronomers, and it tells the story of these unknown women in an entertaining, emotionally compelling way. The show demonstrates the power of theater. Be sure to see it!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with a 20-minute intermission