BWW Review: SILENT SKY at East Lynne Theater Company

BWW Review: SILENT SKY at East Lynne Theater CompanyCape May's award-winning East Lynne Theater Company, founded in 1980 by Warren Kliewer, is the only Equity theater in the United States dedicated to American theater classics and history. With Silent Sky, Lauren Gunderson, the most produced playwright in America, tells the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt whose unsung and groundbreaking discoveries in astronomy would help determine where stars are in space and thus, the depth of the universe. But the script is so multi-layered and moving, that it brilliantly and seamlessly becomes about our place in the universe, as individuals and as a planet, and the impassioned curiosity of those who want to know, which is, on one level or another, all of us. It is about wonder and the drive to understand even from an imperfect and limited perspective.

Churches are great venues for theaters and The First Presbyterian Church of Cape May, which is where ELTC makes it home, is no exception. The intimacy and acoustics create warmth and magic and with a simple but effective set and efficient staging, we're transported to locales ranging from an ocean liner on the Atlantic to the offices of the Harvard Observatory.

The play opens on the Leavitt farm in Wisconsin where Henrietta Leavitt (Kathryn Barnhardt) lives with her minister father and sister Margaret (Veronique Hurley). She spends a lot of her time outside watching the stars or as "Margie" puts it, "staying up all night in the cold like a moth." The sisters are loving and close, but very different. Henrietta is consumed with her work and wants to know "where we are astronomically," whereas Margie is comfortably tied to home and her father's choir. Margie begs Henrietta to stay in Wisconsin with the family, but Henrietta has a chance to work for Harvard College Observatory and uses her dowry to get there. Her first shock will be in finding that she is not met by observatory director Edward Pickering, but by his "oddball" assistant Peter Shaw (Pat Dwyer) who makes his appearance as a shy, stammering nerd with at least six pencils in his pocket, one behind his ear and one in his hand. Further disillusionment comes when she learns that she and her two bombastic and feisty female colleagues, Annie Cannon (Nikki Ferry) and Willamina Fleming (Mary Elizabeth Scallen), are not allowed to use the telescope or contribute ideas, but will be confined to logging and analyzing data from photographic plates. She is quick to challenge Shaw when he unwittingly refers to the three women as "Pickering's harem." "It's a compliment," he stammers, to which she returns, "If you're a concubine." Outraged that she is not allowed to access the telescope, she reminds him that she is a Radcliffe grad "which is basically Harvard in skirts." She also offers to remove her skirt if that changes things.

In spite of the tedious nature of the work and the limitations imposed on her because of her sex, the unconventional Henrietta becomes consumed with "connecting the dots." Her focus on the luminosity or "pulsing" of a class of stars known as Cepheid variables becomes key in measuring how far the Earth is from the stars and other galaxies, epiphanies that would pave the way for other astronomers like Edwin Hubble. Meanwhile, she develops a tentative romance with Shaw (poetic license on the part of the author?), but her personal life, including her relationship with her family, is neglected by her all-consuming passion for what lies beyond.

BWW Review: SILENT SKY at East Lynne Theater CompanyAs Henrietta, Kathryn Barnhardt is quirky, bold and sometimes cutting. At one point, she tells her devoted sister, after not writing for months, that she, Margie, has her "ordinary" life whereas her own specialty is "out there." Like Pat Dwyer as Peter Shaw, the lone male in the all-female cast, she comes across almost as an absent-minded professor or brilliant intellectual and visionary who lacks in social graces. Ferry and Scallen as Cannon and Fleming, Henrietta's fellow "computers," recall the brass of character actress Reta Shaw and also underscore the powerhouse personalities of women who were itching to break barriers. They orbit Henrietta like satellites as she makes her strides and they dip into the suffragette movement. They also provide humorous relief by poking fun at Peter Shaw. Dwyer as Shaw is touching and believable and becomes a poignant, three-dimensional character, instead of the caricature he might have been under a less-skilled actor or playwright. He, like Margie, "sees" Henrietta fully for who she is. Veronique Hurley as Margaret Leavitt plays a less effusive, quieter character and wins us over with her charm, humanity and luminosity; she is my favorite character in the play. Credit must also be given to director Tom Byrn.

Silent Sky tells the moving story of a woman in the mid-1900's who was impassioned about the stars and managed to break barriers and achieve in the world of astronomy at a time when men often took credit for women's findings. Its sense of beauty and wonder reminds all of us of our own small part in a much bigger picture.

Silent Sky is playing at The First Presbyterian Church of Cape May, 500 Hughes Street, Cape May, NJ from September 19 through October 13, 2018.

Photos by Gale Stahlhuth. Top: Pat Dwyer and Kathryn Barndhardt; Center: Mary Elizabeth Scallen, Veronique Hurley, Kathryn Barnhardt, Pat Dwyer, NIkki Ferry.

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From This Author Donna Marie Nowak

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