By Mike Hoban
‘Silent Sky’ – Written by Lauren Gunderson; Directed by Sean Daniels; Set Design by James J. Fenton; Costume Design by Anne Kennedy; Lighting Design by Brian J. Lilienthal; and Original Composition and Sound by David Keeton. Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre at the 50 East Merrimack Street through November 12
Lauren Gunderson’s ‘Silent Sky’, now being given glorious life by Merrimack Rep’s first rate production, is proof positive that science can indeed be fun. It certainly helps that it’s the science of the stars – and its infinite possibilities – at the heart of this dramedy, which is uplifting without hitting us over the head with the very real importance of its subject matter. Silent Sky tells the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, the groundbreaking astronomer who devised a method of analysis that established “the relationship between period and luminosity in Cepheid variables” – which essentially provided the building blocks for the discovery that the universe is considerably bigger (by billions of times) than previously thought.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson (who was in attendance at opening night of the MRT production) has taken a subject that in of itself would have been a worthy (albeit dry) tale of courage and perseverance on the part of Leavitt and her female colleagues, infuses it with a hearty dose of comedy, fabricates a love story for our heroine, and crafts a work that tricks even the science-averse into learning something.
Categorizing “Silent Sky” as a “feminist play,” would be inaccurate, simply because it works so well on so many levels and shouldn’t be pigeonholed as such. Set at the turn of the century (at a time when women aren’t yet allowed to vote), it tells the story of Leavitt (an utterly charming Alexis Bronkovic), who has come to the Harvard Observatory at the urging of its director, Edward Charles Pickering. When the play opens, we see the former Radcliffe student gazing in wonderment at the stars in the night sky at her family home in Wisconsin. Her sister Margaret (Victoria Grace), the more pragmatic, family-oriented sort who understands her sister’s unconventional mindset, urges her to come into the home and join the rest of the family for dinner. But when Henrietta tells her of her plan to leave for the Observatory (using her dowry to finance her relocation), she is crushed but supportive, and we are given a glimpse of the struggles that Henrietta will undergo as she tries to break free of a traditional woman’s role to pursue her dream.
When she arrives at her new job as one of the human “computers” – a group of women who measure and catalog the brightness of stars using photographic plates (women aren’t allowed near the actual telescope) to support the work of their male colleagues – she meets (the fictional) Peter Shaw (Tom Coiner), Pickering’s assistant. Consistent with the time period, he treats her dismissively, asserting his superiority by reciting a list of his academic accomplishments at Harvard. She responds by telling him of her similar achievements at Radcliffe, (“Harvard in skirts”), and we see that she’s not going to submit to his patronizing behavior when she tells him, “Lucky for us the universe doesn’t care what you wear. My expertise and yours might complement each other if we can get past this unpleasant first impression.” The encounter is the opening salvo of an appealing romantic backstory aided by the real chemistry between Bronkovic and Coiner.
Interestingly, Henrietta’s feistiness is even less well received by her female colleague, Annie Jump Cannon (Polly Lee), who upon meeting her for the first time, responds to her impertinent behavior by lambasting her. “If doing that which has never been done before sounds unimportant to you – uninspired – I’d leave before you are asked to,” she snorts. Cannon’s steeliness is tempered by the comically sage Williamina Fleming (Julia Brothers), and the pair push Henrietta to pursue her pioneering work as the three try to cope with the painful injustice of doing the work that their male counterparts will inevitably take the credit for. In addition to the pursuit of scientific discovery, we follow Henrietta’s difficult journey to balance her work with her life back home, as well as her potential romance with Shaw, whom she adores despite his small-mindedness.
Gunderson’s dialogue is modernized a bit to give it fluidity for today’s audiences (but not so much as to jolt us out of the time period), and there are as many good one-liners in the script as any movie classic. “Silent Sky” truly is one of those “Don’t Miss” productions, so get your tickets soon. For more info, go to: http://www.mrt.org/