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Review: SILENT SKY at The Barnstormers

Review: SILENT SKY at The Barnstormers

A celestial journey work taking through August 20

You will never look at the evening sky in about the same way after seeing a performance of Lauren Gunderson's charming play, Silent Sky.

As performed by The Barnstormers Theater in Tamworth, NH, a powerful ensemble cast makes this play one of the most enjoyable evenings of this summer theater season. Simple sets, authentic period costuming, beautiful lighting and amazing character work dominate this production. It is a simple story of one woman's passion and resilience in reaching remarkable goals.

Based on a true story, the plot follows the journey of Henrietta Leavitt (Kendra Jo Brook), who in the male dominated astronomy profession in the early years of the 20th century faced unbeatable odds to pursue her curiosity of what lies in the celestial heavens and what is our existence in this universe.

When we first meet Henrietta, she is a summa cum laude graduate of Radcliffe and has been offered a position at the Harvard College Observatory by Dr. Edward Pickering. With mixed emotions, she leaves her Wisconsin home, her minister father, and church choir singing sister, Margaret (Kira Sarai Helper) to pursue her career even asking for her family dowry to finance the adventure. Her sister plays a wonderfully supportive character throughout the show marvelously and lovingly portrayed by Helper.

Henrietta's dreams of operating the telescope to chart the skies, is quickly shattered as she discovers that her job will only allow her to review glass photo plates with a team of women known as "computers," and chauvinistically referred to as Pickering's "harem."

In the male dominated profession of astronomy played out against the backdrop of the women's suffrage movement and competing demands of her work and family obligations, Henrietta overcomes all obstacles by beginning to document the changes in Cepheid stars - a scientific discovery that has profound and lasting impact on the field of astronomy. Her discovery not only allows her fellow astronomers to measure the universe but to also understand how vast is the space in which we are all living. Her discovery is a legacy that will live forever.

In her quest, she is supported by two fellow computers at the observatory, Williamina Fleming (Dee Nelson), a former housekeeper to Professor Pickering who has a wonderful zest for life and practical approach to Henrietta's goals and Annie Jump Cannon (Cheryl Mullings) a domineering, but soulful woman charged up to secure a woman's right to vote.

Along Henrietta's journey there is a tenderly played out story line where she finds and loses love with fellow astronomer, Peter Shaw (Jordan Ahnquist). Shaw is a conflicted character who walks a fine line of being part of his male dominated profession while seeing the wonder, amazement and skill of this feisty woman who could advance the field of astronomy as well as win over his heart.

The issues of a women's role at the time plays out forcefully in the throes of feminism and women's suffrage but the play is most successful at extolling the value of having passion and following it, regardless of the gender.

The ensemble work at The Barnstormers is breathtaking.

Helper is magnificent in a role that demands forcefulness and tenderness in the same moment, struggling with the needs of her family in Wisconsin set against her career-oriented sister. Helper is a master of nuance resulting in a layered and memorable portrayal. She also sings wonderfully in multiple renditions of "For the Beauty of the Earth," so appropriate for the celestial theme.

As the computers, Nelson and Mullings are ever so convincing and delightful. Nelson's lighthearted character is refreshing, and she provides a levity to any seriousness that arises. You instantly love her.

Mullings is physically and emotionally striking in her role. When she needs dominance, it is there, but always with a tender side to it. Her performance is pure delight.

Ahnquist is superb as the lovestruck innocent. Occasionally looking like actor Hugh Laurie from his time in the British television show, "Jeeves and Wooster," he takes his character on an amazing journey of falling in love with Henrietta (the dance under the stars is a charmer) through being an ardent supporter of the traditional view of a universe limited in scope. As time progresses, he eventually believes in Henrietta's notion that space is much vaster than ever realized. And while he never marries Henrietta, his love for her and her work remains a constant in the show. Ahnquist plays his role to perfection.

And Brook is stellar as Henrietta, with every pun intended. She is small in stature but fills the theater with the determination, power and energy wrapped up in her determined character. She is coy and playful in her scenes with Ahnquist and shows a sisterly love and respect with Helper. Brook exudes a poignant camaraderie among all the women in the cast.

The staging for the show is sparse with a moveable staircase as its centerpiece amid the star filled backdrop of the heavens by scenic designer, Rachel Rose Burke and lighting designer, Aaron Curry. Period costumes are beautiful set by designer, Alison Pugh.

Director, Dori Robinson, is skillful in taking a simple story and making it tenderly powerful without being preachy. She clearly relishes in the simplicity of the script told through the eyes of an extremely talented cast.

Silent Sky ends with a monologue by Brook, who speaks as Henrietta from beyond the grave. Brook tells of the events that follow Henrietta's death, including Edwin Hubble's discovery of the Adromeda Galaxy, the lunar landing, and the Hubble Space Telescope that brings her story full circle to the current century.

With recent images in the news from the James Webb Space Telescope showing a universe expanse never imagined, one cannot help but want to relive Henrietta Leavitt's story over and over.

Henrietta's final words of the show are most powerful.

"Wonder will always get us there, for those of us who insist that there is much more beyond ourselves. I do. And there's a reason we measure it all in light."

Don't miss this celestial wonder taking place in Tamworth, New Hampshire. Silent Sky plays through August 20.

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