BWW Review: SILENT SKY shines at Theatre Baton Rouge

Photo by Jay Lamm
Photo by Jay Lamm

For centuries, the significant contributions of science by women have been relatively unappreciated or unknown (unless you're Madame Curie), but thanks to recent a recent uptake of science-oriented bio dramas that is about to shift theatrically. Currently running at Theatre Baton Rouge is SILENT SKY, a vastly crucial yet little-known story of one woman whose groundwork laid the foundations of mapping the universe despite gender bias and other obstacles. Director Jenny Ballard and her creative colleagues and a motivated TBR cast are tapping into this artful creation to bring this unsung heroine to life.

SILENT SKY, written by American playwright Lauren Gunderson, revolves around early-20th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt whose work with Cepheid variable stars made the measurement of the universe a reality. While straightforward and fact-based with the story, the heart of Gunderson's play is the wonder of discovery while questioning the philosophy of our place in the world.

While born the daughter of a minister, Leavitt found her calling through the study of science. Keenly intelligent, she studied at Radcliffe College, becoming fascinated by astronomy. The story truly begins when she secures a job at the Harvard College Observatory run by noted astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. Leavitt's departure and determination for a career in science create tension with her sister Margaret (Rachel Lorando), a musically-inclined homebody who is more interested in marriage and her duties to their father's church.

At Harvard, instead of meeting Pickering, Leavitt meets his assistant Peter Shaw (Scott Walsh) who explains she's been hired as a human "computer" and unceremoniously dumps her into "Pickering's Harem," a group of women who pour over photographic glass plates produced by the telescope Leavitt is desperate to get her hands on but isn't allowed to use. During the day, she relents and gives in to the grunt work, but at night she analyzes stars that pulse rapidly, eventually determining the relationship between the pulsations and distance, making it possible to calculate the distance between galaxies.

As Leavitt, Erica Malone plays the role with intellectual exuberance, capturing the vivacity of her love of the stars. She's bright, determined, and driven to know about everything - or at least, to understand why she can't know. As exacting as Leavitt was in her work, Malone is in portraying her. And it's here that the play's structure becomes more like a biography than drama. However, dramatic suspense is not the point. Malone's enthusiasm dusts off this important figure in science who was stuffed away to near obscurity despite her advancements.

Others surround Malone's engaging performance in an enriching ensemble. The animosity that starts between Leavitt and Shaw eventually turns into attraction. Walsh plays Peter with an endearing quality. It is nearly quite impossible to melt over lines such as, "For weeks, you've been the brightest object in my life - and we work with stars."

Rachel Lorando as Margaret creates a character with sisterly sincerity while she struggles to understand Henrietta's bold decision to leave the family for a career. Her role is a positive ode to humanity as she sees the extraordinary in normal, daily living. Lorando also possesses a sweet voice, which blends the melody of a simple hymn to underscore many scenes.

The two other members of "Pickering's Harem" are Williamina Fleming, played with a delightful Scottish accent by Tara Nixon; and Annie Cannon, the somber (yet sweetheart underneath) supervisor of the group performed by Nancy Litton. Down-to-earth and jovial, Nixon injects much-needed humor where it counts, while Litton turns from cynic to supporter of Leavitt before becoming a suffragette of women's rights. The camaraderie of these women dazzles throughout and is a worthy performance of these unsung women who helped us to understand the universe better.

Ballard's direction captures the spirit of the play and its heroine. Blending wonderment and matter-of-fact modesty, SILENT SKY brings charm and proves subtlety is just as affecting. Uplifting, unapologetic, and empowering, TBR's SILENT SKY, just like Leavitt, reaches and makes its home among the stars.

SILENT SKY runs through February 3rd at Theatre Baton Rouge.

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From This Author Tara Bennett

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