BWW Review: Arizona Theatre Company Presents Lauren Gunderson's SILENT SKY
In SILENT SKY, playwright Lauren Gunderson's tribute to the pioneering role of Henrietta Leavitt in modern astronomy can stand on its own merits as an honest-to-goodness, intellectually absorbing, and inspiring work. It joins other notable accounts of unsung heroes who, by dint of their gender or persuasions, have been too long overlooked for their contributions to human progress.
In Arizona Theatre Company's current production of the play, director Casey Stangl elevates and transforms the work into a visually magnificent and magical experience. With an eye on the layers of the play that delve beyond the biographic account and celebration of this woman's spirited and inquisitive journey to unravel the secrets of the universe, Stangl invites the audience to wonderment and reflection on the seminal question of the play: What is our place in the vast arena of the universe?
That is the question posed by Henrietta (Veronika Duerr) as she gazes into the depths of the night sky and that spurs her to leave her sister Margaret (Victoria Grace) and the comfort, certainty, and limitations of her Puritan home in Lancaster, Massachusetts for the hallowed laboratories of the Harvard College Observatory.
There, in the early years of the 20th Century, she is drawn into the institutional dynamics that then relegated women of talent to subordinate roles as "human computers." While, during the day, she examines photographic plates to measure and catalog the brightness of stars, she secretly works at night to further understand the scale of the universe. Her dedication to her work and a budding relationship with a fellow astronomer (Nardeep Khurmi) strain her relationship with her sister. She is buoyed by the encouragement of her laboratory sisters Williamina Fleming (Amelia White) and Annie Cannon (Inger Tudor).
Called home upon the death of her father, Henrietta reconnects with Margaret whose talent at the piano ignites an epiphany that becomes the source of a groundbreaking discovery. If we have never before heard of the period-luminosity relation, we do now as Henrietta discovers in the harmony of the keys the harmony that connects the cosmos ~ the finding that stars blink according to their size and that the brighter the stars, the longer they take to blink. Once the size of the stars are known, then their distance can be measured and, therefore, the distance to the end of the galaxy and beyond may be determined.
Henrietta's journey from stargazer to "star-finding fiend" and then to well-deserved acclaim is a testament to one woman's unyielding determination to fulfill her dreams. Space may be infinite, but life is not, and as Henrietta succumbs to ovarian cancer, her place in the vast and silent sky is assured.
As Henrietta's heroic journey unfolds, the members of the cast deliver compelling and authentic portrayals of their characters that would be enough to make for an absorbing and essential two hours of theatre.
However, the production goes an extra mile to create a visual experience that evokes genuine awe. Jo Winiarski's mind-blowing set and Jeffrey Teeter's magical projections accentuate the dominant themes of SILENT SKY. Theirs is a brilliant display of artistic and technological prowess that is sustained and reinforced throughout the play and reaches grandeur in a final explosion of luminosity.
As the play opens, two constructs dominate the stage. A giant aperture that reveals the dark cosmos is juxtaposed against a three-dimensional steepled church. The symbolism is powerful. Science and faith stand at odds, and Henrietta is poised between them, determined to pursue one rather than the other.
As the play progresses, the aperture remains, dramatically dilating and contracting, revealing within its scope the forces that prevail in Henrietta's life.
As the play draws to its conclusion, the theatre is overtaken by a phenomenal and emotionally uplifting blast of cosmic energy. The audience becomes one with the infinite.
One final note. In the lobby, well-placed placards describe the accomplishments of four Arizona scientists - Dr. Faith Vilas, Dr. Burcin Mutlu-Pakdil, Amanda Elaine Bauer, and Meenakshi Wadhwa - whose success is attributable not only to their personal dedication to science but also to the women physicists of the past ~ women like Henrietta Leavitt ~ upon whose shoulders they stand and excel.
SILENT SKY runs through December 1st at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix.
Photo credit to Tim Fuller