SILENT SKY Illuminates Life of Star Scientist

Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky offers a heightened fictional dramatization of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt’s life and her passionate devotion to studying the stars. Directed by Rebecca Holderness for Burning Coal, the ensemble connect with both the technical material and each other, accenting Leavitt’s scientific achievements despite personal, societal, and professional obstacles. 

Upon graduating from Radcliffe College, Henrietta Swan Leavitt accepts a job at Harvard Observatory, traveling to Cambridge from her family’s home in Wisconsin. But at the beginning of the 20th century, women were only employed as computers, essentially, the clerical work of recording and cataloging information on photographic plates of the stars; they were not permitted to look through the telescope dubbed the Great Refractor. Undaunted, Leavitt pursues her personal project after work, examining the Cepheids (stars that seem to pulse) she has found, determined to decipher meaning from the light patterns she is observing.

Rebecca Bossen expertly carries the heavy load of the main character, tapping naturally into the head-strong, ambitious nature of Leavitt, and channeling this young astronomer’s enthusiasm for the stars. Her Leavitt is impatient to find answers; her single-minded devotion to her work is all-consuming. Yet Brossen also presents Leavitt as a sympathetic figure, struggling with frustrations and distractions as she contemplates the vastness of the universe.

Her sister, Margaret, serves as a reminder of the conventional life expected of women of that time. Katy Werlin offers a spirited portrayal of a woman who loves her sister but wants her closer to home and family. Their sisterly bond is mirrored in the relationship of the two other women working as computers at the observatory. Williamina Fleming (Staci Sabarsky) and Annie Cannon (Laurel Ullman) are strong, steadfast, and independent-minded, carving out niches for themselves amidst a world that underappreciated their talents. Both women are thoroughly grounded, with Cannon’s more serious demeanor balanced by Fleming’s playful remarks delivered in a delightful Scottish brogue.

Nash Tetterton has the sole male role as Peter Shaw, the astronomer who brings the photographic plates for analysis. Shaw’s bumbling awkwardness becomes more pronounced as he becomes infatuated with Leavitt, her intelligence and intensity upending his more traditional views of women. And while this romance has its moments, it seems more designed to highlight what Leavitt sacrifices for her work than to promote her contributions to astronomy and science.

Costuming by Loren Bevans adds to the feeling of the early years of the 1900s, as does the work area of the Harvard Observatory designed by Stephen Roy Wright and Ao Li. What felt slighted, however, was the depiction of a starry sky. A more robust light representation was needed to convey the majesty of the universe that captivated the mind of Leavitt. 

Gunderson is masterful in exploring how women must navigate a scientific environment not designed to include them, and a society that wants them to remain in traditional roles. Silent Sky is a reminder that the universe is vast enough for all.

Silent Sky runs through December 18th at Burning Coal Theatre. For more information visit https://burningcoal.org/.

To read an interview with Playwright Lauren Gunderson, click here.

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