Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Three years ago, I reviewed Lyric Arts Main Street Stage's perfectly fine production of Silent Sky. I don't always make it back to plays I've recently reviewed unless there is something of interest about the new production that draws me in, and Theatre Pro Rata certainly provides that. Their current staging is being presented in an unlikely venue, though for this particular play, the most natural of all: the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium, nestled within the beautiful new Bell Museum of Natural History on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus. The setting greatly enhances this interesting but hardly compelling play and turns it into a theatrical event, worth making a place for on your theatergoing calendar.
Director Carin Bratlie Wethern and her creative team, working in partnership with Bell Museum production staff, have made wonderful use of the domed screen above the planetarium's auditorium, with projections (full dome photography credited to Dome 3D Immersive Media Solutions) in place of usual stage sets, creating immersive depictions of the Harvard campus where Leavitt did most of her work, the surrounding Cambridge streets where she lived, the rural home where she grew up as the daughter of a minister, and the deck of an ocean liner on which she travelled to Europe. These work splendidly, but even more exciting are projections of the night sky. We see the vast arrays of stars Leavitt studied, with gradations of color and light in the projections creating a beautiful context for her work, with images zooming out into infinity, seemingly beyond measure.
In fact, a method for measuring the distances between stars, using the complicated relationship between the luminosity and the period (length of time between brightest and faintest light, which might be days, weeks or months) of pulsating stars, was Leavitt's great breakthrough. This allowed for measuring stars at much greater distances from Earth than was previously possible, and provided the basis on which Edwin Hubble was able to prove that the universe is much bigger than the Milky Way, and that ours is just one of many galaxies.
But in the 1890s, when Leavitt started out, women were not permitted to work as scientists. She initially began as a "computer," the term used for women hired to measure and record the data from photographic plates taken by the actual scientiststhat is, the men. She was hired by the project lead, Edward Pickering, and the computersabout eighty of them, all well-educatedwere collectively known as "Pickering's Harem." In Silent Sky, we see Leavitt at work with two actual persons: deadly serious Anne Cannon; and wisecracking Williamina Fleming, blessed with a delightful Scottish brogue. Leavitt begged to go beyond the limitations of her role as a computer and longed to use the powerful refracting telescope housed in the Harvard observatory, but to little avail.
Pickering never appears, but we meet one of his subordinates, Peter Shaw, who supervises the computers. I found no documentation of Shaw being a real person, nor of the romantic feelings that develop between Leavitt and her supervisor, but that inventionif indeed it is onefurnishes a sense of the challenges she faced in trying to live a full life, beyond her steadfast commitment to her work. Similarly, her sister Margaret provides a contrast between the filial duties then expected to keep grown daughters close to home with the life of a scientist, whose duty is to her work. In addition, as Margaret is trained in music and aspires to be a composer, Gunderson suggests a distinction between the pursuit of art and scienceand, in fact, how one can inform the other in powerful ways.
The production is in the hands of a capable cast, with Victoria Pyan holding center as Henrietta Leavitt. Pyan conveys Leavitt's wit, tenacity, and tendency to slip obsessively into her work at the expense of all else, but also her kindness and humility. Carl Swanson is persuasive as Peter Shaw, a man who has resigned himself to being diminished by the dictates of others, be it his own father or Edward Pickering, having no feel for the authoritative role he must assume by virtue of his gender.
Williamina Fleming's bawdiness and generous spirit are well played by Sarah Broude, who also provides a feel for the hardships Fleming faced early in life, which make her appreciate her current station. Danielle Krivinchuk captures Margaret Leavitt's affection for her sister, unscored by resentment at being the one left to tend the home front, and Amber Bjork delivers Annie Casson's stiff and strict manner, finding passion at last, not in her work but as a suffragette.
Samantha Kuhn Staneart has designed costumes that reflect the time period and the status of each character. Julia Curtis' lighting design provides adept augmentation to the fulldome projection lights and images, while Jacob M. Davis' sound design complements the production.
Gunderson deserves credit for casting light upon this unsung heroine of scientific inquiry. How unsung? Her death went completely unnoted, so that a colleague in the Swedish Academy wrote with a proposal to nominate her for a Nobel Prize for her significant contributions, only to learn that she had passed away three years before. Henrietta Leavitt certainly deserves to be acknowledged for her work and for succeeding in spite of the resistance she faced as a woman.
The play itself follows a fairly linear and generally predictable course, with nothing novel about its dramatic structure. This is not a bad thing, but it leaves it in the company of a great many other well-made but unexceptional plays. But in the hands of director Carin Bratlie Wethern, this production under the starry planetarium dome lifts it up from a workmanlike bio-play to an engrossing blend of history, human striving, and stage magic.
Silent Sky, presented by Theatre Pro Rata, runs through March 8, 2020, at the at the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium, Bell Museum of Natural History, 2088 Larpenteur Avenue W., St. Paul MN. Tickets: $30.00; $25.00 for Bell Museum members; students ages 10 - 21, $15.00; student museum members, $12.00. For tickets and information call 612-234-7135 or visit theatreprorata.org.
Playwright: Lauren Gunderson; Director: Carin Bratlie Wethern; Costume Design: Samantha Kuhn Staneart; Lighting Design: Julia Carlis; Fulldome Photography: Dome 3D Immersive Media Solutions; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Prop Design: Jenny Moeller; Props Design Assistant: Ursula K. Bowden; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Stage Manager: Clara Costello
Cast: Amber Bjork (Annie Cannon), Sarah Broude (Williamina Fleming), Danielle Krivinchuk (Margaret Leavitt), Victoria Pyan (Henrietta Leavitt), Carl Swanson (Peter Shaw).