Silent Sky is a story about women and science. Science was once a men’s domain. This is a story of how one committed scientist unraveled mysteries of the universe and made a contribution so big that that only posterity could fully appreciate it; all because her curiosity could not be contained. The playwright Lauren Gunderson has done a marvelous job in bringing the story of Henrietta Leavitt whose curiosity and commitment almost matched that of Galileo. (BTW – here is a link to my review of the book “Galileo’s Daughter” by Dava Sobel – http://bit.ly/zB9bab).
Elena Wright in her role as Henrietta, displays the tremendous inner resolve and strength that a woman scientist needed to succeed the 1800s. Leavitt solicited her sister’s help in her mission to work at the Harvard College of Observatory, after graduating from Radcliff College, in 1893. Jennifer Le Blanc is superb in her role as Margaret Leavitt, Henrietta’s sister. At Harvard, Henrietta yearned to see the great refractor telescope but she was not allowed. Instead, Henrietta worked as a “computer”, examining photographic plates (collected from observations through the telescope by other scientists) and she computed, measured, recorded and cataloged the brightness of the “variable” stars. She worked with two older scientists. Sarah Dacey Charles and Lynne Soffer are fantastic in the roles of Annie Cannon and Willamina Fleming who were participating in the women’s suffrage movement, while working at Harvard.
These are strong women. Matt Citron plays the role of Peter Shaw, a fellow scientist at Harvard. Among four strong female characters, Shaw holds his own. There is a beautiful ying and yang balance. While the women are strong and try to hide their softer core, the only man in the play is gentle, shy in expressing his feelings of affection to Henrietta and as conflicted about proper way to deal with cultural expectations and with the separation of the domains of men and women, as the women are.
As a computer, Leavitt was widely successful, cataloging greater and greater number of stars and their luminosity, even as she began to question her work. “What is the point of all this work, if it cannot tell us where we are in the universe”, she asks. But one day, while listening to her sister play the piano and its rhythm, it occurs to Leavitt that brightness of the stars can be closely linked with the distance. That was the beautiful moment of synergy between math and music. Indeed, if this was to be true, the universe would be much bigger than had been assumed to be. Further, there would be other galaxies and universes. This was a novel idea at the time. Leavitt noticed that variable stars showed a predictable pattern where brighter ones had longer periods of luminosity. This period/ luminosity relationship later allowed the scientists to compute distances to faraway galaxies and later from this work Harlow Shapley was able to move our Sun out from the center of the galaxy and Edwin Hubble to move our galaxy out from the center of the universe.
Almost 300 years after Galileo, Leavitt displayed similar courage to follow her passion and quench her curiosity for knowledge, and Like Galileo, Leavitt changed the picture of our universe forever. This is a play that honors this great scientist and the sacrifices that society demanded of women who sought to play in the men’s world. The stage as the observatory at Harvard is fantastic and when Henrietta looks at the shimmering stars, it almost transports the audience to what she might be thinking and feeling. Great kudos to Jamie D. Mann, Stage Manager and Stephanie Schliemann, Assistant Stage Manager, and Scenic Designer, Annie Smart. Also great kudos to Director, Meredith McDonough and many thanks to Artistic Director, Robert Kelly for continuing to expand our horizons with fabulous shows. The Silent Sky will be running at www.theatreworks.org till February, 9 and I would not miss it for the world.