‘Silent Sky’ at Falcon “Starring” Henrietta Leavitt
Review By Doug Iden
What is it like to have your astronomical accomplishments diminished because you are undervalued by the scientific community due to your gender? How do you balance your professional life passion with family needs? These universal questions are being asked in the production of Silent Sky based upon the real-life story of Henrietta Leavitt playing now at the Falcon Theater.
Leavitt (playing brilliantly by Jordan Trovillion) through her own sunny personality and dogged determination played a key role in the determining of the size of the universe by developing Leavitt’s Law (the period-luminosity relationship for a type of star called a Cepheid Variable). However, because women could not be astronomers in the early 20th Century, Leavitt’s accomplishments were, initially, dismissed but later accepted when co-signed by her male counterparts.
The story by playwright Lauren Gunderson takes place over a number of years but starts with a Henrietta as a recent mathematics and fine arts major from Radcliff who is watching the skies in wonderment. Her sister Margaret (Hannah Gregory) implores Henrietta to come in from the cold but cannot dissuade the passion and the questions about “what is out there and how big is it?”. Accepting a position at the Harvard Observatory, Henrietta becomes a “computer” whose job is to interpret and catalog the celestial images on photographic plates taken from the university telescope. Her fellow workers in the “harem” include (real-life) Williamina Fleming (Martha Slater) and Annie Cannon (Tara Williams), both of whom had already made substantial breakthroughs in cataloging astronomical phenomena. Fleming is very accommodating of the recent hire who, already, is pushing to use the telescope which was prohibited for women. Cannon, with a saturnine and stern disposition, demands that Henrietta forestall hopes of eclipsing the work of the male astronomers and “do her job”.
The women’s immediate superior is Peter Shaw (Nathan Tubbs) an educated but unimaginative scientist who is immediately smitten by Henrietta. But Henrietta is too interested in finding patterns in the blinking cepheids and, eventually, identifies thousands of them and is able to categorize them. Because of a small dowery, Henrietta is able to support herself and work extra hours to find the patterns that she is seeking. Shaw’s timid advances go largely unnoticed.
Henrietta’s sister Margaret continues to write and implore her sister to return to Wisconsin. When her father becomes very ill, Henrietta returns home but continues to work on the plates until she finds the pattern in the cepheids which tells her that the universe is much larger than known at the time. The remainder of the play tells the rest of her story.
This is a very engaging story about early female astronomical pioneers and addresses, unapologetically, the shackles placed on the women and their ability to succeed nonetheless. Under the direction of Bridget Leak, the one-act story unfolds effortlessly with occasional direct narrative to the audience to propel the story and also through correspondence between various characters which is read aloud. Trovillion plays Henrietta as a very determined, somewhat sassy women who never gives up on her dream but is often frustrated by the limitations placed upon her. She is shy around men and reticent but prioritizes her work over romance. Her sister (Gregory) is, initially, concerned about Henrietta’s aggressiveness but, eventually, consoles herself to the reality. The three members of the harem begin to bond when it becomes obvious that Henrietta’s work (along with their own) is allowing galactic advances in the science.
The set (by Sarah Beth Hall) is simple but effective. The back of the stage has a small platform with a piano that is played by Margaret (who has talents of her own). On either side of the front stage are two tables holding the photographic plates which the women dissect. The costuming by Beth Joos includes affluent early 20th century garb with some extravagant wigs.
The lighting designed by Katie Ruwe is simple but, symbolic. At various times, the lights flicker and blink representing the phenomenon of the cepheids and, at the very end, the back curtain lights up to represent the multitudinous stars in the universe.
Overall, this is a good play told in straightforward fashion by a charming and entertaining cast. The playwright makes her points but does not bludgeon you with them.
So, grab your backyard telescope and your “guide to the stars” and transport yourself at the speed of light to the Falcon Theater through April 16. Their next production is Spunk which runs from May 20 through June 4.
Doug Iden is an avid, lifelong theater fan with an extensive collection of original cast albums. He also teaches classes on musical theater at OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute).