BWW Review: Woven Theatre's Exquisite and Enlightening SILENT SKY
Nashville audiences have become rather familiar with the work of Lauren Gunderson, the most produced living American playwright of the 2016-17 season, primarily due to works presented by Tennessee Women's Theater Project. Now, thanks to an impressive production of her Silent Sky, by Woven Theatre Company - as part of their inaugural Women Pioneer Series - we are introduced to another of her quintessentially intriguing and compelling women: Henrietta Leavitt, an American pioneer whose work in the male-dominated field of astronomy in the early part of the 20th century is clearly the stuff of legend, providing inspiration for the generations of women and men who have followed in her wake.
Gunderson places Leavitt and the women with whom she worked in the spotlight, shining her creative and imaginative beam on these groundbreaking women with the same focus and respect afforded the 18th century genius mathematician at the center of her Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight, while employing her trademark wit as effectively as she does in The Taming, the politically-charged updating of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, which is filled with humor both trenchant and topical.
Directed with equal parts reverence and wit - a deft undertaking that other directors might covet for their own reviews or resumes - by Laramie Hearn, the five-character play by Gunderson follows the journey through the stars and the heavens taken by Leavitt, who throughout her life remained thoroughly captivated by the complexities of the universe, seeking to determine the whats and wherefores of the myriad galaxies even while forging a path usually unavailable to women.
As Henrietta remains resolute in her focus on doing the job she was hired to do, we see her struggle to balance home and family - with the promise of romance (in the person of a young astronomer played by Alex Drinnen) coming into her life almost unexpectedly - with her career at a time when women were struggling to break down barriers in the workplace, proof positive that as much as things change in this world, they have remained repressively unaltered in so many ways.
Gunderson's portrait of Leavitt and her extraordinary life is filled with intellect and whimsy, with light-hearted moments balancing with the more serious realities of the society in which women struggled to claim their rightful place in the early 1900s to present a story that is at once edifying and inspiring. Hearn's ensemble of actors, led by the charming and forthright portrayal of Leavitt by Meredith Daniel, seems ideally suited to telling Leavitt's story with sharp focus and total commitment.
When first we meet Henrietta, she is telling her sister Margaret (the always appealing Christy Berryessa) about her job offer to become one of the women "computers" working at the Harvard Observatory, ostensibly "assisting" the male astronomers in their efforts to map the universe and to reveal the mysteries of the stars. It's a sexist enclave in a sexist world, where the discoveries by women are only considered noteworthy when endorsed by their male superiors who claimed the efforts as their own, giving credit sparingly, if at all.
Henrietta and the other computers aren't allowed to look through the lens of Harvard's telescope (such an act was reserved only for men), but rather do their computations by looking at photographic plates of the heavens supplied to them by the men they must serve diligently.
Throughout Gunderson's sharply written play, so vividly brought to life on the Troutt Theatre stage by Woven Theatre Company, we come to know Henrietta and her female co-workers Annie Cannon (beautifully portrayed by Beth Anne Musiker) and Williamina Fleming (Kelly Lapczynski) and their tireless efforts in pursuit of their dreams and aspirations, working to break through the glass ceiling in order to gain a better view of the universe that they seek to expand through their work.
Gunderson writes so evocatively of women and science (imagine, if you will, how difficult it was for women to be taken seriously for anything, much less scientific breakthroughs, in an era in which they were considered mere chattel of their husbands and fathers) that audiences easily become invested in the people about whom she writes, able to feel the emotional heartbreak when they fail to receive the attention they so richly deserve. In a century during which so much technological advancement was realized, women were forced to bend to the whims of men at every turn, the achievements by Leavitt and her fellow computers (as the women were called, much like the real-life heroines in the acclaimed 2016 film Hidden Figures) largely ignored by the people writing the contemporary accounts of their creation.
In the world in which we live today, where women still must work harder and longer to achieve notoriety in their fields, the oppressive society of the early 20th century still seems far-fetched, almost unbelievable, rendering the work of Leavitt and others far more startling in its impact. As so effectively shown in Silent Sky, the struggle to find respect and achieve recognition in their field was as constant as the efforts for women to gain full suffrage, the right to vote and own property - essentially to be their own persons in a rapidly evolving environment.
In that way, Silent Sky effectively relates a thoroughly compelling history of the early 1900s while engaging audiences with the often heartfelt, deeply emotional aspects of an intimate story of one woman seeking to claim her rightful place. The play intrigues and inspires, to be certain, but it may also enrage. And, make no mistake, you will be moved by what transpires on the stage, particularly toward the end of the evening during which Henrietta and her chosen family celebrate her accomplishments.
Daniel is superb as Henrietta, effectively bridging the gap between the fictional and the real to create a character so artfully etched that she seems a paradigm of virtue, yet somehow is completely accessible and relatable for a 21st century audience.
As Henrietta's loving and devoted sister Margaret, Berryessa is wonderfully believable, exhibiting fierce resolve herself to become a wife and mother while supporting her sister, even while allowing flashes of sibling rivalry to add a sense of the genuine to the relationship between the two.
Lapczynski's Fleming is a hoyden - bombastic and boisterous - yet she plays her with tremendous heart that results in a more fully realized character. As Cannon, Musiker is brisk and efficient, hard-working and committed, displaying a penchant for activism that offers a look into the suffrage movement about which too few people today know enough.
Finally, Drinnen is refreshingly unfettered as Peter Shaw, the fictional man created by Gunderson, to more effectively show the struggle faced by a single woman of the era working to define herself in ways considered different by her contemporary society. Charming and gallant, if somewhat bumbling and uncertain, Drinnen's rather straitlaced Mr. Shaw remains a steadfast friend to Henrietta throughout.
Taylor Elizabeth Thomas provides Hearn's cast with an ideal set upon which to play, illuminating each scene with evocative lighting and ensuring focus remains on the actors in the process. Kyle Odum's impressive sound design and Sam Lowry's exquisite projections add significantly to the production's design aesthetic, while Alizah Ferguson's costume design clothe her characters beautifully, while showing the changing fashion conventions of the day.
Silent Sky. By Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Laramie Hearn. Presented by Woven Theatre Company. At Belmont University's Troutt Theatre, Nashville. Through July 30. Stage managed by Jenna Hulsey. Set and lighting design by Taylor Elizabeth Thomas. Sound design by Kyle Odum. Music composed by Natalie Bell. Projection design by Sam Lowry. Costume design by Alizah Ferguson. Props design by Margaret Horne. Tickets are available at woventheatre.org or at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/silent-sky-by-lauren-gunderson-tickets-33679629679. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).
About the show Woven Theatre Company presents Silent Sky, by Lauren Gunderson, as part of their Women Pioneer Series, opening this Friday, July 21, at Belmont University's Troutt Theatre. The Women Pioneer Series consists of plays about historically significant or under-recognized women, written by women. It runs through July 30.
When Henrietta Leavitt begins work at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s, she isn't allowed to touch a telescope or express an original idea. Instead, she joins a group of women "computers," charting the stars for a renowned astronomer who calculates projects in "girl hours" and has no time for the women's probing theories. As Henrietta, in her free time, attempts to measure the light and distance of stars, she must also take measure of her life on Earth, trying to balance her dedication to science with family obligations and the possibility of love.
"Silent Sky is a familiar story to anyone who has ever known the pull of passion. To anyone who feels they have a calling, a desperate desire to know, or create, or think, the struggle of balancing that passion and the events of everyday life can be daunting," says director Laramie Hearn.
"This is a story about that. About the balancing act that is living, and the consequences of letting that balance tip. We, all of us, would like to know where we belong in this world, where our place in the universe is. That is Henrietta's greatest question, and her journey to its answer takes a lifetime."
Hearn's cast includes Meredith Daniel (as Henrietta), Christy Berryessa (Margaret), Beth Anne Musiker (Annie), Kelly Lapczynski (Williamina) and Alex Drinnen (Alex).
"Silent Sky is such a vibrant, tender, beautiful adventure. I'm so thankful and honored to bring Henrietta, a woman who defied custom and tradition to shatter the glass ceiling, to the stage," Daniel says.
"These women have been all but lost to history, and yet their contributions are still used today," Hearn explains. "Henrietta Leavitt's work on the Cephid stars led us to our understanding of the true size of the universe, created our understanding of period-luminosity relationship, and helped us map the stars. Annie Jump Cannon and Williamina Fleming also contributed greatly to the astronomical community, and yet these brilliant women were paid twenty-five cents an hour to compute data that others collected. Bringing stories like these to life is important, lest we forget what we owe to those that came before. Getting to work on this play with these people has been a gift. I couldn't ask for kinder, harder working artists than those I have. I'm so glad to have MerEdith Heading this one up, and the work she does with her fellows is compelling and honest."
Hearn's creative team for the project includes Jenna Hulsey (Stage Manager), Taylor Thomas (Lighting and Set), Sam Lowry (Projections and Set), Kyle Odum (Sound), Alizah Ferguson (Costumes)
Woven Theatre will have American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation, provided by Bridges, on Sunday, July 23 and Thursday, July 27. Individual Tickets and Season Tickets are available at woventheatre.org or at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/silent-sky-by-lauren-gunderson-tickets-33679629679. Tickets are $10 online and $15 at the door.