Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Silent Sky
Lyric Arts
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of How to Have Fun in a Civil War


Audrey Johnson and Kayla Hambek
Photo by Scott Pakudaitis
The day to day work of scientists usually does not lend itself to great drama—observing phenomena, recording data, analyzing results and organizing findings are essential, but not highly watchable, activities. However, the passion to fully understand the natural world, drive to overcome obstacles in one's path, and exhilaration of a scientific breakthrough can make for terrific drama. Such is the case in Silent Sky, Lauren Gunderson's play about astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, a pioneer among women in her field, that opened last weekend at the Lyric Arts Main Street Stage.

Gunderson's work typically centers on strong female characters, with several about women in science. Silent Sky's straightforward biographical narrative starts in 1893 when Henrietta Leavitt is offered a position by Professor Edward Charles Pickering, a Harvard astronomer. A graduate of Radcliffe, Henrietta had returned to her rural Wisconsin home shared with her Congregational minister father and her sister Margie. She had taken advanced classes in astronomy and, though she had not earned her degree in that field, she was inspired to commit her life to it—so much that she persuades her father to release money set aside for her dowry to subsidize her work under Dr. Pickering. Margie counsels Henrietta to save her dowry, as she may yet want to marry, but Henrietta is firm in her self-knowledge that investigation of the universe—and a life beyond the confines of their small town—is her destiny.

At Harvard, Henrietta is chagrinned to learn that her position is as a "computer", the job title for women who transcribe data from photographs taken at observatories around the world for Pickering's project to map the universe. The women are known on campus as "Pickering's Harem." When Henrietta is told by Peter Shaw, Pickering's protégé and supervisor of the women, that the sobriquet is meant as a compliment, she responds "If you're a concubine!" Henrietta is even more alarmed to learn that women are forbidden use of the powerful telescope at Harvard's observatory.

Still, she accepts the position, earning the trust and friendship of colleagues Annie Cannon, a grim suffragette, and Williamina Fleming, a life-affirming Scottish woman (both were real personages in "Pickering's Harem"). Over time she also earns Peter Shaw's admiration, followed by stronger feelings. On her own time, Henrietta studies the data looking for constant measures as standards of the magnitude of stars. She seeks to know not only their location on a sky map, but their distance, to know the true size of the universe and posit the prospect of universes beyond our own. Her obsessive work robs her of time with her family and romantic love, but she achieves her goal. Still, the academic system is controlled by men who appropriate her work for their own advancement. Henrietta's lasting contributions and recognition are stated in a gripping coda that places her among the stars she so loved.

Silent Sky succeeds best at depicting the step by step progress Henrietta makes in her own work, and the chipping away at the barriers to women in her field. Gunderson manages to make the science comprehensible, and captures the emotional involvement between a scientist and her work. These moments are the peaks of the narrative. The growing relationship between Henrietta and Peter Shaw also feels authentic in its sputtering progress in act one, though act two reinforces a wish that authors would cease creating tensions between characters that could be resolved if only they talked to each other. In the relationship between Henrietta and her sister Margaret, Gunderson observantly conveys both Margie's devotion to her sister and resentment at being left behind to shoulder the burdens of home, though she is less successful in suggesting that Henrietta feels deeply any sense of what she has lost in the separation from her family.

These characters are fully realized by a talented cast. Audrey Johnson anchors the play with Henrietta's sharp intelligence, wit, independence and determination to achieve what she has set out to do. Her unrelenting focus does not feel grim or obsessive, but rather evokes joy. Kayla Hambek gives Margie the tenderness of a loving sibling while conveying the hurt inflicted by her sister's apparent indifference to family. Gabriel Gomez is swell as Peter Shaw. He is at first as dislikable to the audience as he is to Henrietta, but reveals his softness and earns our affection as he wins hers—making it all the more wrenching when circumstances come between them. Danielle Krivinchuk is a starched and stern Annie Cannon, believable as a fighter for women's rights, while Beth King invests Williamina Fleming with great warmth and a bawdiness that provides balance to the trio of "computers." She also does very well by way of her Scottish brogue.

Lyric Arts' production, directed by Anne Byrd, captures the sense of Henrietta's journey to world's unknown—the mysteries of the universe and the rigid borders that kept her and other women out of the province of science. It is paced to mirror the slipping away of time, with the passing years unnoticed as Henrietta is consumed by her passion. A large panel above the stage is bathed in deep blue with swirls of indigo, suggesting the infinite depth of the night sky. That panel is used throughout the play for projected images that suggest various settings—the Leavitt family's home in Wisconsin, the Harvard campus and observatory, Henrietta's Cambridge home, and places at sea in in the distant sky.

Aside from those projections, the settings are suggested by the movement in and out of a few pieces of furniture—a settee, a piano, the women's work stations—with the exception of an ocean liner deck, the setting for a couple of scenes, which exhibits an ambition out of sync with the minimalist design of the rest of the play. The costumes are in keeping with the formality of early 20th century academia, while lighting and sound design enhances the production throughout.

The word "silent" in the title refers to Henrietta's near deafness, which required the use of a hearing aid. It is clear that her disability did not impede her work. At one point, she states that she turns off her hearing aid while working in order to focus more fully on the task. As if to complement this condition, Silent Sky makes good use of music. Upon entering the theater, the audience is surrounded by music that was as new in Henrietta's era as her own journey—Debussy's Prélude á l'aprés-midi d'un faune and a quartet by Amy Beach, who break barriers of her own as a woman composer. "The Amoureuse Waltz" by Rodolphe Berger provides an almost ethereal soundscape for a wished-for romance.

Lauren Gunderson is becoming a frequent presence on our stages. She was represented last September by Twenty Percent Theatre's production of the political farce The Taming and will show up again at year's end when Jungle Theater mounts Miss Bennet, a play that places Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice Bennet sisters in a Christmas story. Silent Sky is a well-wrought example of Gunderson's work. It offers a fascinating look at intersecting breakthroughs in scientific thought and women's freedoms in a staging that brings out the best qualities of the play. It was my first visit to Lyric Arts Main Street Stage in downtown Anoka. The caliber of this work impressed me to plan return visits to see future offerings.

Silent Sky continues at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage through January 22, 2017. 420 East Main Street, Anoka, MN 55303. Tickets from $30.00 - $16.00; senior and student discounts available. For information and tickets call 763-422-1838 or visit lyricarts.org.

Writer: Lauren Gunderson; Director: Anne Byrd; Scenic Design: Bryan Proball and Emma Davis; Costume Design: Stephanie Mueller; Lighting and Projection Design: Jim Eischen; Sound Design: Topher Pirkl; Prop Design: Emma Davis and Nate Otto; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Stage Manager: Joe Black; Assistant Stage Managers: Andrea Kotzer and Will Rosin.

Cast: Gabriel Gomez (Peter Shaw), Kayla Hambek (Margaret Leavitt), Audrey Johnson (Henrietta Leavitt), Beth King (Williamina Fleming (Beth King), Danielle Krivinchuk (Annie Cannon).


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