A new regional premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky revolves around early 20th century astronomer, Henrietta Leavitt (Rachael VanWormer). Her passion for science and space is evident long before she becomes a famous scientist.
Much to the shock of her ultra-religious Wisconsin sister Margaret (Catie Grady), Henrietta moves to the Harvard College Observatory. Once there, she meets other real life astronomers, Annie Cannon (Cynthia Gerber) and the Scottish Williamina Fleming (Associate Artistic Director and director of Patron Services, Deborah Gilmour Smyth). Soon, Henrietta becomes a “computer” for the observatory’s director, Edward Charles Pickering.
Gunderson doesn’t let a sexist environment get in the way of the women’s dedication to their profession. Leavitt, especially, won’t let anything like intolerance or even her hearing loss ruin her devotion to learning about stars and planets.
Spunky and courageous, VanWormer is cheerfully enthusiastic as Henrietta. Although Henrietta turns into quite the workaholic, VanWormer’s wholehearted earnestness always makes the scientist likable.
Acting opposite VanWormer, Gerber brings a steely and intelligent presence to the role of Annie, and Gilmour Smyth is hilarious playing the jovial and optimistic Williamina. Their chemistry with VanWormer leads to some emotionally rich scenes.
VanWormer, Gilmour Smyth and Gerber look authentic thanks to Jemima Dutra’s costumes, and, none of the clothes that they wear resemble the type of stereotypical get-up one associates with a scientist.
Two people who care deeply for Henrietta are Margaret and Pickering’s bashful assistant, Peter Shaw (Brian Mackey). Grady and Mackey touchingly depict how important Henrietta is to Margaret and Peter.
Henrietta’s motivations and goals are well defined. Some of the others with whom who Henrietta interacts, especially Annie and Peter, become quite different from how they are portrayed as their introductory scenes. It’s really rewarding to see them come into their own as their confidence and relatability grows.
Partially responsible for the empathetic characterizations is Producing Artistic Director, Robert Smyth. He creates investment in the personal lives of each person, while also drawing attention to their professional success.
Plenty of humor exists in Gunderson’s writing. Admittedly, a few of her lines get a little too cutesy. On the whole, though, most of the jokes land thanks to the ensemble.
All the scenes, including those on The Leavitt Farm, take place on Sean Fanning’s beautifully detailed Harvard-inspired set. Nathan Pierson’s lighting helps depict different locations when VanWormer communicates to others through a telephone or through letters.
Michael McKeon selectively uses projections to visually represent the wondrous sky, and his contributions help transfer Henrietta’s zeal to the audience.
Adding emotion are Gilmour Smyth’s music and Grady’s angelic vocals. Both of their musical contributions are gracefully handled throughout both acts.
On the other hand, some of Gilmour Smyth’s sound effects, such as broken glass and ocean waves, aren’t always necessary to the plot. Her audio accompanying certain conversations and speeches occasionally feels somewhat excessive.With so much material to cover in a little less than two hours, Gunderson’s script feels rushed in spots. Certain conflicts that Henrietta goes through with Margaret end pretty quickly, and don’t really affect the narrative in the long run.
In spite of her peppy attitude, Henrietta faces major problems that negatively affect her life. Some tragic aspects that Henrietta goes through are overlooked during the course of the play.
This might be because Gunderson would rather have the evening be an optimistic one. Even if it isn’t a very dark night, Silent Sky does still feature a good amount of genuinely powerful sequences.
Working equally well as a family-friendly history lesson and a tribute to an inspirational pioneer, Silent Sky tells a significant story about the importance of science. Gunderson’s play is an eye opening experience.