BWW Review: SILENT SKY at Ford's Theatre is Bursting with Imagination
The city lights of Washington may typically obscure the night sky, but a portal to the cosmos has opened in downtown DC. Playwright Lauren Gunderson has gifted us a corner of the galaxy through the telescopic lens of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt's life and scientific discoveries. Leavitt's work may have been rooted in facts and figures, but SILENT SKY is bursting with imagination.
I admit I would be slow to name any constellations beyond Ursa Major and I was virtually unaware of Henrietta Leavitt's life and legacy, but SILENT SKY is a loving account of the scientist's calculations that expanded our very understanding of the universe. The concepts are vast, but the characters of SILENT SKY are mercifully accessible. Leavitt, her sister, and her colleagues are a delightful group of people to spend an evening with. History becomes most valuable when dates and facts are presented in the context of human relations. In the age of Wikipedia, we tend to list historic figures by their accomplishments and lose the fullness of their lives. SILENT SKY sketches a remarkably economical two-hour introduction to Leavitt's impact on her family, colleagues, and scientific community.
Laura C. Harris treats Henrietta Leavitt with tenderness and seemingly profound respect in her portrayal of the astronomer. She is aloof, driven, vulnerable, and assertive without compromise or conflict. Harris clearly feels comfortable in filling the facets of Leavitt's life from sister to colleague to pioneer. The script is so compact that the fluctuations between Leavitt's personal and professional life could be jarring, but Harris fluidly sails through them.
Tethering Leavitt between the Earth and the stars are her sister, Margaret (Emily Kester), on one end and fellow researchers, Annie Cannon (Nora Achrati) and Williamina Fleming (Holly Twyford), on the other. The Leavitt sisters' relationship is a celebration of the beauty of people who want different things but continue to care for one another. Margaret is an outsider in Henrietta's orbit but keeps her grounded. Kester gives spunky life to Margaret's tireless familial commitments. When her sister sets out to make an important discovery, Margaret's domestic accomplishments could be eclipsed, but Kester dutifully maintains her presence as a stabilizing force.
Twyford and Achrati as Leavitt's seasoned colleagues Williamina and Annie are knockouts. Twyford is witty and warm as a housemaid turned office manager at the Harvard Observatory. She is absolutely magnetic with a mischievous power to set people straight with a smile. Achrati plays off of her as an equal, but opposite. Stern and steady, Annie is a natural leader, which she channels into a social cause as the play progresses. SILENT SKY does touch on a romance between Henrietta and a colleague, but Twyford and Achrati undoubtedly achieve the greatest chemistry among the cast.
As for the sprinklings of a love story, enter Peter Shaw (Jonathan David Martin). Martin has the trying task of standing his ground among four strong female actors. He manages to be both a charming suitor and the foil. Martin is able to redeem his character from a low point of caving to a weak ego. To recover from that turn and ultimately emerge as likable deserves commendation.
Director Seema Sueko has demanded precise timing from her cast and it pays off big. The scenes are punchy, packed with both humor and plot. The scenes are often short but seem to fill up so much space. Despite the technical and scientific themes, SILENT SKY is so beautifully theatrical. Sueko has lifted a symphony from the script. Above all, she sticks the landing on tricky jumps in time and location which the audience surely appreciates.
The set is reminiscent of a snow globe with a galactic scene rather than a wintry one. Scenic designer Milagros Ponce de León has captured a feeling of a peaceful observatory. A magical touch comes in heavenly formations of lights made from Edison bulbs. The suspended orbs are both dazzling and make a nod to the early 20th century. I fully expect DC restaurants and hotels to adopt the fad based on Ponce de León's design.
Leavitt's research proved that everything is relative, but against any measurement, SILENT SKY is spectacular. The universe expands, and sometimes we must too. There are struggles, frustrations, and true loss among the story, but it's difficult to leave the theater feeling anything less than joy. I regret not knowing more about Leavitt before now, but it was an absolute pleasure to make her acquaintance.
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission.