BWW Review: SILENT SKY: Wishing on the Stars
Written by Lauren Gunderson, Directed by Dori A. Robinson; Producer, Caitlin Mason; Stage Manager, Amy Lehrmitt; Set Designer, Debra Reich; Costume Designer, Cara Chiaramonte; Props Designer, E. Rosser; Lighting Designer, PJ Strachman; Sound Designer, Kyle Lampe; Dialect Coach, Lizzie Milanovich
CAST: Erin Eva Butcher, Brenna Sweet, Marcus Hunter, Juliet Bowler, Cassandra Meyer
Performances through March 25 by Flat Earth Theatre at Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA; Tickets: https://flatearth.ticketleap.com/silent-sky
There is one month out of the year that is designated as Women's History Month, so one could assume that it is a limited topic. One would be wrong, but it does offer an opportunity to make discoveries about important women whose stories have not been told. Flat Earth Theatre presents the New England premiere of Lauren Gunderson's Silent Sky, a historical drama about a trio of women astronomers who charted the heavens at the Harvard Observatory in Cambridge at the turn of the 20th century. Like their counterparts in the acclaimed film Hidden Figures, the work of these human "computers" was vital, but they were not seen as equals in the workplace and often had to sacrifice their personal lives to be taken seriously.
Telling the story of Henrietta Leavitt (Erin Eva Butcher), Williamina Fleming (Juliet Bowler), and Annie Cannon (Cassandra Meyer), Silent Sky chronicles their careers and discoveries over a twenty-year period, culminating in Henri's far-reaching achievement of figuring out the method to measure the distances between stars. We see the trio, segregated in a basement office and prohibited from using the famed Great Refractor telescope, mapping stars on glass plates, even as they struggle to break the glass ceiling that separates them from their male colleagues upstairs. Gunderson doesn't blatantly hit you over the head with her feminist cudgel, but this is most definitely a feminist play and the actors embody the message.
In order to broaden the narrative and provide greater human interest, Gunderson uses dramatic license to create a sister, Margaret Leavitt (Brenna Sweet) and a romantic partner, Peter Shaw (Marcus Hunter). Each of these characters brings conflict into their relationships with Henri, but they also drive her to get in touch with what matters most to her and ultimately are both vital to her support network. The well-written script is directed by Dori A. Robinson, who emphasizes the intelligence and persistence of the women, while allowing the lone male character to be a multi-faceted individual, not a one-dimensional stereotype.
The performances across the board are strong and authentic, but Butcher is especially ferocious in conveying Henri's journey. She had to fight to make her family understand why she would not marry and move far away to pursue her passion; she had to fight for standing among her female co-workers who were there before her; she had to fight to gain the respect of the men, but eventually won them over when her accomplishments could not be ignored. At every turn of events, Butcher conveys the appropriate emotions, and the nuances of her reactions make her scenes all the richer. She has wonderful chemistry with Sweet, legitimizing the idea that these very different women are sisters, and Sweet shows the midwestern, church-going sensibility that sometimes makes it hard for Margaret to comprehend Henri.
Fleming and Cannon are different as night and day, with Bowler's warmth and openness a contrast to Meyer's tightly wrapped, no-nonsense demeanor. However, all three women share a camaraderie born of their desire to explore the universe and do whatever is necessary to gain a seat at the table. Hunter does an admirable job of portraying Shaw's journey as he gets his consciousness raised by Leavitt, eventually growing from liking and respecting her to falling in love.
The simple set design (Debra Reich) consists of five blue vertical panels painted with splashes of stars upstage and furniture moved on and off to indicate Margaret's home or the women's workspace. PJ Strachman (lighting design) suspends numerous bare lights, occasionally pulsing to replicate starlight, and differentiates day or night, as well as locations, with appropriate lighting changes. Costume designer Cara Chiaramonte dresses the women in long skirts, frilly blouses, and shawls, and gives Hunter a period-style suit and a starched-collar shirt, evocative of the early 1900s. Dialect coach Lizzie Milanovich assures that Bowler captures her character's Scottish brogue. Kyle Lampe handles sound design.
Flat Earth Theatre stages a really solid production that is entertaining, educational, and even kind of awe-inspiring. It is shameful that we don't see more of these stories being told because it is powerful to see what women accomplish under less than ideal circumstances, and to give them credit for their commitment and passion. In the case of Leavitt, Fleming, and Cannon, while they explore the universe, they also discover more about themselves and each other, hoping to understand where they are and what they will leave behind as their legacies. Women who continue to strive to break through their own glass ceiling stand on their shoulders.
Photo credit: Jake Scaltreto (Juliet Bowler, Brenna Sweet, Erin Eva Butcher, Marcus Hunter, Cassandra Meyer)