Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Gunderson's play is based on the true story of Henrietta Leavitt, a 19th-century astronomer who worked at Harvard mapping the stars in galaxies far away. Her fascination and passion in discovering exactly where we are in the universe resulted in groundbreaking work, which led to the knowledge of where we are located in the galaxy and also a way to map the distance between the stars. Unfortunately, as the play depicts, Leavitt was the victim of being born at the wrong time, when women had to struggle for recognition in a profession where men ruled, while also having to deal with the guilt of being caught between a career that was everything to her and a personal life that took a back seat.
The play is very well crafted, with succinct scenes and dialogue that beautifully pull us into Henrietta's world and the important work she did, allowing us to fully understand exactly what she was doing and what her thought process was. That's a huge compliment, since most of her time was spent notating facts about stars in journals from details gleaned from photos of the stars on glass plates which were taken from the massive telescope at Harvard, a telescope that Henrietta and her fellow female co-workers weren't allowed to touch. Still, even without using that telescope, she was able to collect, report and maintain the data and then correlate and analyze the information to draw conclusions from the details in order to make her groundbreaking discovery.
Not only has Gunderson created a moving biography of Leavitt, but the play is also still relevant today since, while women have made a great deal of progress in the work environment since Leavitt's time, they are still often treated as second-class citizens, making a lower salary for doing the same work as their male counterparts. There is also the significance of the struggle a working mother must endure today when forced to choose between her career and her family, something that men in the workforce often never face.
Arizona Theatre Company's production has a superb cast and an exceptional creative team, many of whom are women, which is a nice touch for appropriate representation, especially concerning the characters and topics the play covers. Director Casey Stangl does an excellent job instilling a large amount of warmth, fascination and emotion in the play. Not only do the cast create nuanced, realistic individuals, but the creative aspects, including the inventive set by Jo Winiarski and the creative and imaginative projections and lighting by Jeffrey Teeter and Jaymi Lee Smith, respectively, transport us to another time and place. Kish Finnegan's costumes are embellished with period-perfect touches and fabrics, and the sound design by Paul James Prendergast is almost ethereal.
The cast is stunning. As Henrietta Leavitt, Veronika Duerr is nothing short of brilliant in her ability to make us deeply care for this woman who wants a chance to show the men in her profession what she's capable of, and to have us fully understand and see the passion she has for the work. The moments in the play where we see Henrietta making a discovery are infused with emotion and passion by Duerr in a portrayal composed of realism, nuance, and a multitude of layers. It's a glorious performance of a most fascinating woman.
Nardeep Khurmi is quite charming as Peter Shaw, the awkward assistant who finds himself drawn to Henrietta but unsure of how to make his intentions known. When Shaw says that Henrietta is the brightest object he's seen "and we work with the stars!," the exuberance Khurmi brings to that line, and to the part, is endearing. Khurmi and Duerr form a fun yet slightly odd couple the audience can root to see succeed.
As the two female co-workers of Leavitt, Inger Tudor is sharp as the blunt and meticulous Annie Cannon, while Amelia White is energetic, peppy, cheeky, and fun loving as Williamina Fleming. Victoria Grace is composed and caring as Henrietta's sister Margaret Leavitt. Grace and Duerr create realistic sisters who banter and bicker.
I have to believe that everyone has asked "Why?" about something at least once in their life or has been fascinated with finding out the answer to a question that concerns the mysteries of the universe. That's the true beauty of this play, as not only is it a stirring study of a woman who had a significant impact on science, but it's also a beautiful work about the excitement and passion of discovery. As Leavitt says, "All I want to know is what's true," and from Gunderson's beautifully written play and this exquisite Arizona Theatre Company production, we realize how one woman's constant curiosity to find the truth has left a lifelong legacy and impacted many other scientific discovers years after her death.
Arizona Theatre Company's Silent Sky runs through December 1, 2019, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, visit www.arizonatheatre.org or cal 602-256-6995.
Playwright: Lauren Gunderson
Director: Casey Stangl
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.