Backstage Review: ‘Silent Sky’ at Restless Artists Theatre

“Silent Sky” is a magnificent play based on a life well lived.  Henrietta Swan Leavitt showed a devotion to the science she was dedicated to and the results were indeed eye-opening. The performances are much the same, the actors are full of passion and they will fill your hearts with joy.

Review and Photos by Dana Nollsch

Analysis by Norm Robins

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

“Silent Sky” has a script that blends science, relationships, and romance in a thoughtful way. Written by Lauren Gunderson, one of the most prolific playwrights in America, “Silent Sky” is a story of one of the first female astronomers at the turn of the century. That astronomer is Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an obsessed mathematician who find the mysteries of the stats to be a comfort in her life. She has many obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is the fact that she is a woman in a man’s world. When she joins Harvard College Observatory in 1895 she finds herself in a room full of women called “Computers” examing photographic plates representing stars and space. This is where she finds a home and a deeper purpose.

Photo of Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Her boss,  Annie Cannon, sees much more in Henrietta than meets the eye. Annie lets Henriettawork late on the project that drives her to find the answer to the question, How Big is the Universe? There is a magic in the relationships we see building on the stage. This magic is further fueled by the stellar performances by the five actors.

“In our troubled days it is good to have something outside our planet, something fine and distant for comfort”
~Annie Jump Cannon~

Here are some photos to give you a taste of what you will see at “Silent Sky”.

There is also a romantic relationship that is challenged by the obsession that Henrietta feels for her work. We see her life played out on stage and her relationships grow to deep friendships until the end of the play that brought me and Michelle to tears.

I cannot say enough about the Quality of the performances.  Each of these five actors are brilliant in their roles,  Sara Mackie is especially splendid playing Henrietta. We can feel the passion for discovery in her performance.

“Silent Sky” delivered much more than I expected, you should see this production!

~Dana Nollsch~

And be sure you read Norm’s Analysis for further insight!

“She had the happy faculty of appreciating all that was worthy and lovable in others, and was possessed of a nature so full of sunshine that, to her, all of life became beautiful and full of meaning.
 ~Solon I. Bailey~

Cast:

Williamina                                           Kathy Welch

Margaret                                             Kira Temple

Peter Shaw                                         James Miller

Henrietta                                             Sara Mackie

Annie                                                    Debra Lynn Hull

Directed by                                         Doug Mishler

Silent Sky will be performed by the Restless Arts Theater May 3rd through May 19th at 295 20th St. in Sparks.  For More information go to www.rattheatre.org.

Silent Sky At The Restless Artists Theater

By Norm Robins

This is a gem of a play.  Let’s start with an interview with the author, Lauren Gunderson.  Let’s see what she is telling us about her handiwork.

I don’t ordinarily write in the first person, but for me this play is personal so I would like to preview it from my own perspective.  Perhaps it will be instructive, even illuminating.  It certainly will be rare.

I was born in 1936, and my brother was born in 1941.  My father died in 1942 leaving his 35-year old widow with essentially the money in his pockets and two small children.  My mother was born in 1907, just a little after this play takes place but when the thinking was the same.  When she was young she wanted to go to college.  That was in the 1920s.  My maternal grandmother, a lovable but strong-willed disciplinarian, told my mother that if she wanted to work she could become a teacher or a nurse.  Those were the two careers open to women  No, it would be better for her to do what normal girls do, get married, have some children, and be a homemaker.  Such were the choices open to young women.

After my father died my mother became a secretary.  The world was changing.  We were moving off the farm and into the world of commerce.  But secretaries were considered racy ladies indeed.  They worked with men!  They were paid terribly because they were taking jobs away from men, the family’s main breadwinner.  It was considered immoral for a woman to have a job if a man was unemployed.  And it was on these reduced wages that my brother and I were raised.  The three of us lived in a studio apartment on a streetcar line in Chicago across from a bar that closed regularly and boisterously at 2 AM.  It was during World War II so we were lucky we had even that.

At 18 years and 10 days I joined the U.S. Air Force.  Four years later I took my G.I Bill and got a BS in Civil Engineering.  I worked for 7 years as an engineer.  Then I cashed in my retirement plan and got an MBA.  I had two daughters.  I swore on my mother’s head that they would not have to put up with what she did.  And I made sure they didn’t.

My two daughters today are college educated career women.  Their jobs require independent judgment and discretion.  They are self-sufficient and self-reliant, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.  That’s my story, and that’s the perspective I bring to this preview of Silent Sky.

This is a woman’s play.  Henrietta Leavitt along with coworkers Annie Canon and Williamina Fleming are female astronomers in a male dominated world. 

Edward Pickering served as director of the Harvard College Observatory from 1877 until his death in 1919. He pioneered the use of photography to study astronomy.  He hired women to do his calculations, computers as they were called, because they were cheaper than men and because to his mind they were better at repetitive work.  To the chagrin of his employees they were called Pickering’s harem.  But he did give women credit for their work.  And because women at the time were considered delicate, weak creatures and because the building that housed Harvard’s telescope was unheated, women were not allowed to use the telescope.  Or so they said.  Women were limited to analyzing photographic plates taken with the telescope by men and brought to them by men.

It might be facile to damn Pickering as presiding over a bigoted system, but it would also be glib and superficial.  This was the zeitgeist of the times.  Most women went along with it.  Many did not.

Pickering had three women computers.  Williamina, played with boundless energy and a rascal’s demeanor, by Kathy Welch.  She doesn’t like her second class status, but she accepts it.  She laughs at it because if she can’t laugh there is nothing left to do but cry, and who wants to do that?  Annie is played ably and convincingly by Debra Lynn Hull.  She is the lead computer.  She is a disciplinarian.  She may not like her world, but she understands it and she knows how to work within its constraints.  She too has to work to provide men the data they need to soar academically without the recognition or the pay the women deserve.  Into this milieu comes the star-struck (literally) Henrietta played beautifully by Sara Mackie.  Henrietta tries to fit in and to an extent does, but really she is impelled by her curiosity to rise above it all.  She wants more.  And they are all directed beautifully by Doug Mishler who draws you into this story and leaves you empathizing strongly with the three women.

Henrietta comes from a traditional Wisconsin family personified by her sister Margaret played very well by Kira Temple.  Margaret is the standard woman of her time.  She stays home, gets married, has children, and cares for her aging and sick father.  She implores Henrietta to do the same. 

But Henrietta has bigger ambitions.  She is impelled to be an astronomer.  She has to find out what’s out there in the universe and where it is.  She is obsessed with this curiosity.  She has no life to speak of outside of her work.  She has a brief affair with her supervisor Peter Shaw played by James Miller.  James plays him convincingly as meek and intimidated by the three strong but suppressed women in Pickering’s harem.  They make light of him at every opportunity.

Henrietta observes that in some stars, later named the Cepheid stars, luminosity (or brightness) varies over time.  That is, their brightness gets brighter and brighter and then dimmer and dimmer.  It regularly cycles bright and dim.  And curiously the longer it takes to go from one luminosity peak through to another peak, the brighter the star is.  Brightness and time between peaks correlate. 

Henrietta is called home to Wisconsin to help Margaret care for their ailing father.  Margaret plays the piano with skill.  She has musical ambitions.  She is writing a symphony.  Henrietta takes photographic plates home with her and continues her work.  Listening to Margaret playing her music Henrietta discovers there is a pattern to it.  She can’t help but notice the pulsing of the Cepheid stars also has a pattern.  Henrietta exclaims, “The pattern.  The numbers—when you put them in the right order— they’re —Oh my God the blinking is music—so simple—right there!”

Eureka, that’s it!  These stars are playing a symphony for her.  One can tell their distance from the earth and from each other by their music, the music of the universe.  This epiphany comes at the end of the first act in a scene that is sublimely directed and performed.  It takes your breath away.  Euphoria bursts out of it like a flood after the gates open.

Her work still stands.  It has had an impact on astronomy that lasts to this day.  It is genius, but more than that it is inspired genius.

But the times are changing and changing quickly.  Henrietta shows us space is unbounded.  Einstein shows us energy is matter in motion, and matter is energy at rest.  He also shows us that in the presence of a strong gravity field time and space compress.  The suffragette movement including Annie is campaigning for the vote for women, and they succeed.  The play ends with the future just beginning.

Here’s my message to fathers of daughters:  Just as you and I needed heroes when we were young, Superman, Spiderman, Ernest Hemingway, a superstar baseball player, so do your daughters.  If you want to suggest a readymade one for them you couldn’t do better than Henrietta Leavitt, the hero of Silent Sky.  Show your daughters no matter what the obstacles, like Henrietta they can overcome anything and do great things.

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