Sometimes a show makes me want to stand up and declare “now this is why I come to the theater!” On opening night of “Silent Sky” by Lauren Gunderson, you could feel the crackling excitement that this just might be a show for the ages. And indeed, it was. “Silent Sky” is based on the true story of Henrietta Leavitt, a groundbreaking astronomer from the early 1900s who transcended limitations placed on her gender to reach for the stars.
Leavitt, played by the indomitable Kendra Jo Brook, bounded onto the stage brimming with exuberance for the stars and sky. A play about the stars could be difficult to successfully stage indoors, but Henri, as her sister calls her, conjured the night sky all around us all with her vivid descriptions and her willful spirit. As Henri and her sister, Margaret (Zoya Martin), talked about their passions for astronomy and music respectively, the language and shorthand they shared was riveting. Brook and Martin have the easy familiarity of sisters, and both actresses gave bold performances worthy of the incredible women they portrayed. I found myself wanting to hold onto their conversations so that I could think more deeply about the intertwining of astronomy and music, which winded its way throughout the production. The poetry with which Henri described the stars together with the distant melody of Margaret’s lilting piano was significant and deep, yet light and carefree when discussed through the prism of their youthful optimism. It was much like hearing a new song that sounds familiar even though you have not heard the version of the notes put together in quite this way before.
Henri declared: “I have questions. I have fundamental problems with the state of human knowledge. Who are we? Where are we? Why are we?”
Sound familiar? We are in the midst of an information explosion even as we seem to lack clear answers to age-old questions. Henri was on to something to be sure, and she held steadfast in her belief that the answers could be found by studying the sky.
Henri arrives at Harvard in search of her freedom and hell bent on making discoveries under the tutelage of her sponsor, Dr. Charles Pickering. Instead, she burrows headlong into her first obstacle embodied by the bumbling, self-effacing, yet charming Peter Shaw. Shaw’s role at Pickering’s office seems to be to keep the women, the “harem” as he calls them, at bay as they engage in important yet tedious work using images from the telescope to identify stars. Shaw quickly shoots down any prospect of Henri looking through the coveted telescope, which is housed only a few feet away from her desk. The telescope was an impenetrable looking glass ceiling for the women in the office. Pickering’s harem, she learns, are only permitted to process images captured by the telescope rather than look through the telescope with their own eyes. What a fitting metaphor for women, relegated to second class status, who handle the heavy lifting behind the scenes while their male colleagues absorb the limelight and the credit. She learned the women would toil six days a week, late into the night for meager wages all to get a seat adjacent to the table.
Henri’s compatriots in Pickering’s office are Willamina Fleming (Lisa Bruneau) and Annie Cannon (Suzanne Grodner). Annie made a startling discovery by helping place order on the delineation of the stars, something Henri greatly admires and studied in school, but which seems to be considered by the academy as nothing more than tidying up the stars for the male scholars. Will, with her witty vivacity and heavy Scottish brogue, was Pickering’s former maid, whom he hired for his observatory in a fit of pique when he declared to his all-male staff that he thought his housekeeper would do a better job, and she did. Will turns out to be just the light-hearted influence Henri needs in her life, and Annie serves as a hard-edged but highly accomplished mentor.
Peter reveals himself to have a burgeoning crush on Henri, who transitions from finding him irritating to slowly discovering that, although he lacks her innate passion for astronomy, his appreciation of her fertile mind makes him an appealing suitor, despite her reservations about spending any time away from her discoveries. The two share a chaste and adorable romance that forms the centerpiece of Act 1 of the play. I found myself wondering whether a man of that era could have fallen madly in love with someone so intellectually superior to him, so I fact checked it. No such suitor seemed to have existed in Henri’s life. Christian Douglass was winning and delightful as the lone male energy on stage, but I wonder why Gunderson found in necessary to include an apocryphal boyfriend for the endlessly ambitious Henry. Watching them fall in love and later become congenial friends was a highlight of the play, so I’ll forgive a bit of wishful storytelling. Gunderson’s play “The Revolutionists” played with women’s role in history during the French Revolution, and she managed to convey the same thrilling energy among only four female cast members.
There are early suggestions that Will and Annie may be engaged in a Boston Marriage before they coyly share a kiss, and their constant playful bickering and ardent admiration for one another was the true backbone of the show. Bruneau and Grodner balanced each other beautifully, and any brilliant discoverer would be privileged to have Will and Annie in their corner. The chemistry among the cast is truly spectacular, and each brings weight and heft to their roles.
As much of this young century has been about reexamining history through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is truly remarkable that a lesser-known figure like Henrietta Leavitt gets her due in Gunderson’s sparkling play, lovingly directed by Seema Sueko. It is always exciting, exhilarating, and inspiring to learn about women throughout history who accomplished incredible things despite men’s “feet on their necks” as abolitionist Sarah Grimke stated. Even as we have taken many steps forward and then several steps back of late, ground-breaking women continue to make revolutionary discoveries that push our progress forward. Much as world-famous physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson makes galaxies far, far away seem accessible, so too would Henri have brought her wisdom and ingenuity to our forbearers if given the chance. Let’s make sure the Henris of the world need not toil in the silent sky. Studying the grandness and greatness of the stars places the daily machinations of our lives in perspective and helps us remember that every one of us has a bit of stardust inside us and stares up at the same sky. What a profound message for our times!
You have many more chances to check out Asolo Rep’s brilliant “Silent Sky” playing now through March 5th – so don’t miss it!