by Mike Hoban
‘Silent Sky’ – Written by Lauren Gunderson; Directed by Dori A. Robinson; Set Design by Debra Reich; Costume Design by Cara Chiaramonte; Lighting Design by PJ Strachman; Props Design by E. Rosser; and Sound Design by Kyle Lampe. Presented by Flat Earth Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts (formerly known as the Arsenal Center for the Arts), 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown, MA through March 26.
If the thought of spending an evening watching a play about the life of Henrietta Swan Leavitt – the groundbreaking astronomer who discovered “the relationship between period and luminosity in Cepheid variables” – has you reaching for your appointment calendar to schedule some dental work, try and fight the urge. Dental hygiene can wait, at least until you’ve seen Flat Earth Theatre’s “Silent Sky”, quite possibly the most enjoyable production I’ve seen so far in 2017, a year that has already delivered a plethora of terrific shows.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson has taken a subject that in of itself would have been a worthy (albeit dry) tale of courage and perseverance, 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. Flat Earth’s creative team takes this wonderful script and elevates it into a celestial theatrical experience. Like the company’s extraordinary treatment of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention” in 2015 (which brought home a handful IRNE Awards, including Best Play – Fringe), “Silent Sky” is a luminous example of just how good “small” theatre can be.
“Silent Sky” could be termed a “feminist play,” but to do so would be to unfairly pigeonhole the work, (even if it is Women’s History Month) because it works so well on so many levels. Set at the turn of the century (at a time when women aren’t yet allowed to vote), it tells the story of Leavitt (Erin Eva Butcher), 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. Her sister Margaret (Brenna Sweet), a 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 (Marcus Hunter), 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, (which she refers to as “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 also sets up a romantic backstory that Butcher and Hunter never let slide into contrivance.
Interestingly, Henrietta’s feistiness is initially less well received by her female colleague, Annie Jump Cannon (Cassandra Meyer), 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 blunt but empathetic Williamina Fleming (Juliet Bowler), 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.
The design team of Debra Reich (Set Design), Cara Chiaramonte (Costume Design), PJ Strachman (Lighting Design), E. Rosser (Props Design), and Kyle Lampe (Sound Design) have created a simple but effective universe for us, whether we’re in the research lab, back home in Wisconsin (where Margaret and the family live) or under the stars. Dori A. Robinson’s direction is flawless, and she elicits terrific performances from the trio of IRNE nominated actresses (Meyer, Butcher, and Bowler) as well as relative newcomers Hunter and Sweet.
Meyer adroitly balances suffragette Annie Cannon’s tough persona with her caring and supportive side, and Bowler displays a wonderfully unexpected flair for comedy in her role as Williamina Fleming, the Scottish housekeeper-turned researcher. Sweet holds her own as Henrietta’s music teacher sister Margaret, balancing compassion with a few very convincing blasts of anger when her sister fails to live up to familial responsibilities. Hunter is a charmer as the sometimes clueless Shaw, and his scenes with Henrietta feel like the real thing. Butcher follows up her terrific performance in last fall’s “Sense and Sensibility” with another fully realized portrayal as Henrietta, and is really coming into her own as one of the region’s top young lead actresses.
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: https://www.flatearththeatre.com/