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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Silent Sky
City Lights Theater Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's review of Next to Normal


Taylor Sanders
Photo by Maria Giere Marquis
"Heaven's up there, they say. 'Pearly gates, pearly gates,' they say. They don't know much about astronomy, I say."

The only heaven Henrietta she cares about is the night sky she can see lying on the grass, wondering about the questions that gnaw at her: "Who are we? Why are we? Where are we?" It is that last question that particularly bugs her. How, in 1900, can people on earth still not know where they are in relationship to all those twinkling, shooting stars—stars no one has yet a clue about how far away they are?

Graduating from Radcliffe, the actual Henrietta Swan Leavitt bundled her passionate interest in astronomy and her excellent mathematical skills and arrived at Harvard College Observatory to become a "computer," one of several brilliant women hired in the late 1800s and early 1900s for as little as twenty-five cents an hour to care for and analyze the observatory's photographic collection of the night skies, all captured on glass plates. The largely untold, unknown story of Henrietta and her colleagues is brought to the stage by Lauren Gunderson in her 2011 play, Silent Sky, now in a beautifully conceived and executed production by City Lights Theater Company. With a cast who bring wonderfully nuanced interpretations to three of these early space pioneers as well as to the two people whom Henrietta loved the most and hurt the most, City Light's intimate stage becomes a landscape for a fascinating, funny and fearless story in which the sky is a limitless field to be conquered.

Maria Giere Marquis's portrayal of Henrietta Leavitt is nothing short of award worthy. From the moment we meet her, there is no doubt that Henrietta is fiercely independent, absolutely headstrong, and undeniably focused on discovering something big about the limitless sky on which she so fondly wants to gaze—although her male colleagues at the time mostly disagree with her gut belief in the "limitless" aspect of space. For all her intensity of purpose, Ms. Marquis' Henrietta is also dedicated to her aging father and grown sister—at least as long as they do not get in the way of her work—and not immune to exploring her own unknown territory of even falling in love (again, as long as work can come first).

Maria Giere Marquis is able to use a silent smile, a raised eyebrow, or a sudden, fixed stare to convey almost as much information as she does through the words Lauren Gunderson has so masterfully crafted for Henrietta. In her every moment, there is curiosity bursting from her every vein. Henrietta is a woman who sees the skies above as full of "billions and billions of exceptions" to any rules, laws, or preconceptions humans have thus far conceived (bye-bye, Newton); and it is those exceptions she craves almost to the point of madness to know more about.

Her Henrietta physically bristles that neither she nor any of her female colleagues can look through the university's massive telescope and as a group are referred to as "Pickering's Harem"—Edward Charles Pickering being the historical head of Harvard's Conservatory for over forty years (1877-1919). But gritting her teeth (after making a few, well-chosen remarks about both insults), Henrietta finds a way to identify thousands of pulsating stars and to pursue her observation that stars farther away pulsate less frequently, leading to one of the most important discoveries of modern astronomy of how to measure distances between heavenly bodies and galaxies and to what is still known today as Levitt's Law in astronomy.

That breakthrough for Henrietta comes through not only dogged research against a universe full of odds but also from her observation that "the stars are like music" and her listening to the connections and pauses among a composition's notes. Music plays an important role in Lauren Gunderson's recap of this history and in City Light's retelling on the stage. Sound designer George Psarras threads classical, religious, period, and ethereal-sounding music throughout the production, including music from an onstage piano that is at one point played by Henrietta's sister, leading to Henrietta's sudden "ah-ha."

Margaret Leavitt is Henrietta's (fictitious) sister who clearly both adores her and carries much pent-up resentment that she is left at home to care for their aging father while Henrietta goes off to Boston to work. On the one hand, she complains with some bitterness to Henrietta, "I wonder why you exceed the expectations of everyone except this family." The two explode into sisterly battles of words in back-and-forth letters, with Henrietta becoming exasperated when Maggie wants to share news of home, saying with a cutting edge meant to sting, "I'm too busy ... There are a lot of stars up there ... I can't play house right now."

On the other hand, the devout Maggie tearfully in pride tells her sister after Henrietta's important discovery, "The way I see it, you asked God a question, and he answered it." Jessica Whittemore is the essence of a proper, late-Victorian woman who still prides herself on the traditional roles of women, who is deeply devoted to her god and her father above all, but who learns over time that there may well be a divine calling her elder sister has been called to play.

Henrietta is just one of three "computers" whose lives and contributions are remembered and honored in Lauren Gunderson's script. April Green is the no-time-for-foolishness Annie Jump Cannon who is content that the women collect, report and maintain the data that only the men get to analyze. She brings an initially stern-to-the-point-of-cold air about her when Henrietta bursts into the office with all her challenges, questions, and proposals for change. However, her statuesque posture and prim and proper manners loosen as she begins to become both intrigued and supportive of the late-night research and findings of Henrietta—and as she also becomes a 1919 suffragette leader. Ms. Green is superbly believable as the industrious, business-first Annie Cannon who in actuality invented the system astronomers still to this day use to classify stars as well as the mnemonic to remember the seven classes: "Oh, Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me."

Quite opposite in temperament from Annie is Williamina Fleming, played with a contagiously delightful, Scottish accent by Karen DeHart. Henrietta is immediately at ease with Williamina, who describes her version of what they as "computers" do: "We are cleaning up the universe for the men and laughing at them behind their backs." Ms. DeHart has a heyday giving Williamina a devilish, prankster streak and a tendency to speak her mind with few edits. At the same time, her big-smiling Williamina is always only a hug away from sharing her big heart. Ms. DeHart plays the woman who in reality was plucked by Professor Pickering from his household service in 1879 to become the first female "computer" at Harvard's Observatory, studying more than 200,000 glass plates in her career, discovering stars, novae, and a nebula, and developing a system of classification that today is still known as the Pickering-Fleming system.

Overseeing these women is an apprentice of Dr. Pickering (whom we never meet), Peter Shaw. Daily, he literally bursts down the steps to the room where the women work to whisk away their latest books of star recordings for the male astronomers to use in their work. But with the arrival of Henrietta, Peter begins to come more often and to linger a bit longer, both done with much awkwardness and accompanied by snickers and teasing comments by Williamina. George Psarras's Peter first shows his attraction to Henrietta with a nervous pattern of barely breathing when he tries to talk to her, but as the draw to her grows stronger, he becomes a bit bolder, still in ways that look like a teenage boy's first attempts to interact with the opposite sex.

As the attraction becomes mutual, things for the workaholic Henrietta become complicated, especially as a family crisis literally interrupts a kiss and a dance. The fictional Peter Shaw's relationship with Henrietta is a welcome inclusion by the playwright as it highlights the very real conflicts that a young woman in the early 1900s faced if wanting a life not totally defined by father and/or husband. George Psarras brings smile after smile to the audience as his Peter stumbles through courtship and its consequences.

Actor and now often director Mark Anderson Phillips returns to City Lights to direct Silent Sky with an ability to teach us some important history while ensuring the personalities and dilemmas never seem so outdated that we cannot relate, empathize and learn. He makes full use of the spectacular set designed by Ron Gasparinetti with its sloping ramp, stairs, multiple levels and rooms in cherry-colored wood as well as a skeletal hint of the observatory dome under a massive backdrop sky. In that sky, projections and video designer Garland Thompson, Jr. creates mesmerizing night skies while also periodically showing us scenes and events of the times that put the story in both a Harvard and a worldwide context.

Along with the impactful sound design mentioned earlier designed by George Psarras, Joseph Hidde's lighting design often links to the sound effects as hanging droplets light up to twinkle one by one, adding to many other equally beautiful effects of shadows and illuminations that highlight the sense of wonder of the work the women are performing. Finally, the early twentieth century comes to full life through the impressively detailed costumes of Anna Chase and the historically revealing properties—particularly those associated with astronomy—designed by Miranda Whipple.

If nothing else, becoming engulfed by the captivating history and personas of Lauren Gunderson's Silent Sky cannot help but motivate any audience member to find some dark space and a cloudless night in order to look up at the billions of stars and galaxies that Henrietta, Annie and Williamina once studied and made important discoveries about as they only looked at black dots and blotches on see-through glass. City Lights Theatre Company's production is so beautifully compelling and ultimately moving that even if someone walks in with no interest in astronomy, that person will for sure walk out and at least looking skyward.

Silent Sky, through June 16, 2019, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose CA. Tickets are available online at cltc.org or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday - Friday, 1-5 p.m.


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