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Silent Sky

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Mar 21, 2017
Juliet Bowler, Erin Eva Butcher, and Cassandra Meyer in 'Silent Sky,' continuing through March 25 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown
Juliet Bowler, Erin Eva Butcher, and Cassandra Meyer in 'Silent Sky,' continuing through March 25 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown   

If you liked "Hidden Figures" -- the hit film about African American women who were handed the task of working as human computers for NASA, solving complex mathematical problems about lift and payloads and orbital trajectories, vital work for which they received little appreciation or credit -- then check out Flat Earth Theatre's production of Lauren Gunderson's play "Silent Sky," about another real life group of female human computers.

In this case, the women worked for Harvard Observatory at the turn of the 20th Century. They included talented trailblazers like Annie Cannon (Cassandra Meyer) and Williamina Fleming (Juliet Bowler), as well as the main character of the play, Henrietta Leavitt (Erin Eva Butcher).

Though she hails from a family headed by a preacher, Henrietta is interested in the heavens as the realm of the stars, rather than an abode of cherubim, seraphim, and souls in repose. Her sister, the musically gifted Margaret (Brenna Sweet), wonders whether there might be "room for my heaven" in the skies as seen by Henrietta, and frets that her sister is breaking with convention by leaving Wisconsin for the rarefied academic life of Harvard.

But Henrietta is possessed by a feeling that she needs to extend her gaze, and her reach, far beyond the arenas expected of a woman of her times; the prospect of being a wife and mother pale next to the certainty that, if only given a proper astronomical instrument -- like Harvard's great refractor -- she can not only chart the known celestial bodies, but make fresh new discoveries, too.


The cast of 'Silent Sky'  (Source:Flat Earth Theatre)

And so she does; Henrietta Leavitt had a crucial insight into a kind of star called a Cepheid variable that enabled astronomers to measure stellar distances. The play doesn't barrage us with technobabble, but neither does it soft-pedal the science that so illuminates Henrietta's world, and that's the right balance given that Henrietta Leavitt's work literally opened up the skies and brought to light the startling realization that the universe does not consist solely of our own Milky Way galaxy and a couple of smaller satellite galaxies. Rather -- and you can practically hear Gunderson smiling as she composes the dialogue, here -- the universe is unimaginably vast, containing "billions and billions" of galaxies like our own.

Gunderson doesn't strain to make the characters sound like they're from the 1890s. If anything, they sound maybe a little too modern; in another anachronistic touch -- noticeable but not overly distracting -- Henrietta, who is partially deaf, uses a contemporary-looking hearing aid. These small flourishes speak to how far ahead of her time Leavitt was, as does her first exchange with the women's immediate supervisor, a rising star in the field of astronomy named Peter Shaw (Marcus Hunter). When Shaw makes one unthinkingly sexist remark after the next, Leavitt cuts him right down to size. He likes it; in fact, he falls in love with her, and Henrietta, despite herself, responds in kind.

But life's sloppy problems get in the way of Henrietta's work and her budding relationship. She doesn't have enough focus to give her family members as much attention as they want and need, and when it comes down to it, Henrietta prefers -- and needs -- to prioritize her work over her relationships. Margaret, who understands and tries to cover for Henrietta's negligence, can only do so much with the family back in Wisconsin, and nothing for Henrietta's nascent romance with Peter.


Erin Eva Butcher and Brenna Sweet in 'Silent Sky'  

Henrietta has never fooled herself that the world of men would be welcoming to a woman of her smarts and drive; she's long been content to embrace a life of solitude in exchange for the chance to explore the stars, if only by way of taking meticulous measurements of tiny splotches on photographic plates, the valuable records of many a night sky. Even so, the question looms large: Does pursuing one's work whole heartedly mean sacrificing absolutely everything else life has to offer?

Happily, no. As the years pass, her colleagues grow to respect and love Henrietta; even the initially cold Annie warms up, while Scottish live wire Williamina takes Henrietta under her wing from the start. Eventually, the male-dominated field of astronomy begins to take notice of the quality of Henrietta's work, and she wins what she most craves: Institutional and collegial respect for her contributions. What might have turned into a tragic story becomes unexpectedly buoyant, and the well-chosen, uniformly excellent ensemble give off sparks on stage that are as bright as the stars themselves.

The production's design work is similarly strong. Debra Reich's set consists of spaced panels with painted stars and nebulae -- windows looking out into the night sky, one supposes, the representation of the inside of an observatory. Costumer Cara Chiaramonte dresses the cast well -- not overly elaborately, but without skimping. PJ Strachman's lighting design meshes with Dori A. Robinson's direction, lending visual energy to a play that is written with a sense of dynamism.

It's one of the great pleasures of the theater that your imagination can be provoked the way "Silent Sky" does. You go into a black box space, but you feel as though the universe is opening up to you, just as it does for Henrietta.


"Silent Sky" continues through March 25 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please to to https://www.flatearththeatre.com/


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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