At a certain point in Lauren Gunderson’s play, Silent Sky, a turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century professor declares with hubristic certitude that the universe consists solely of the Milky Way galaxy. Henrietta Leavitt, an extraordinary, passionate astronomer, was confined by her gender to the grinding, but important job of “computer,” that is, the examining of photo plates and cataloguing the brightness of stars. By persistence and dedication, she made, documented and published a discovery that blasted the notion of a finite universe to smithereens. Silent Sky is the story of that remarkable woman.
Played with an irresistible vivacity by Jennifer Cannon, Miss Leavitt eschews the limited life typical of women of the time to follow her scientific passion for astronomy. With her mathematical background, she takes the position of computer at the Harvard College Observatory. The observatory director, Edward Charles Pickering, became dissatisfied with the work of his male drones, declaring that his housekeeper, (Williamina Fleming, played with Scottish exuberance by Jennifer Parsons), could do a better job – and she did! So he staffed the exacting, painstaking job with a cadre of women who became known, exasperatingly, as Pickering’s “harem.”
Gunderson’s finely crafted play takes Miss Leavitt from the warm confines of her family—most importantly from her doting sister Margaret (Erin Anne Williams) who loves her dearly but doesn’t understand her passion for the stars or even why any woman would want anything other than a life as a wife and mother—to her bold move to Harvard. Barred by sexist policy from using the great telescope, she channeled her energy into the detailed observation of the photo-plates where she focused on “variable stars” whose luminosity changes over time. Another leading member of the “harem,” Annie Jump Cannon (vigorous, imperious Leslie Stevens) was herself a fine astronomer who had a long and honored career and was perhaps, as fleshed out by Ms. Gunderson, a radical suffragette. Providing a humanizing, awkward love interest for Miss Leavitt, Eric Wentz as Dr. Pickering’s assistant, Peter Shaw, has an awkward, puppy-dog adorableness that can turn to stern reserve as needed.
Directed by Todd Nielsen, the International City Theatre production has a flexible unit set by Christopher Scott Murillo, lit by Donna Ruzika, that represents an observatory with the dome high above and a periodic projection of stars (Lily Bartenstein). The terrific costumes by Kim DeShazo are period perfect changing as the time goes by from stiff buttoned up to suffragette bold. Hair and wigs by designer Anthony Gagliardi complete the accurate, historic look.
It has been said that Henrietta Leavitt’s discovery provided the key that allowed Edwin Powell Hubble to unlock the secrets of an expanding universe. I found the play uplifting and delightful, leavened by the inevitable sadness that is the universal lot.
Silent Sky runs through September 10 at the International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 330 East Seaside Way in Long Beach.