You can smell the Squarely Inspirational vibe a mile away from Silent Sky, but for most of it there’s enough intelligence and beauty that you don’t mind the forced uplift.
The play tells the story of Henrietta Leavitt, a real-life early 20th century astronomer who, working out of the Harvard observatory, overcame obstacles placed in the paths of women of the day (yes, yes: some of which remain) in her field-advancing study of cepheid variables, a type of star whose pulsing brightness she used to help calculate their distance. I’d say “don’t worry — it isn’t all math and telescopic plates,” but unsurprisingly, the science is many of the best parts.
Leavitt, one imagines, would like that cerebral emphasis. She’d also probably enjoy Laura C. Harris’s take-no-prisoners performance as her. Crisp but expressive, she combines a sense of scientific wonder with a fitting no-nonsense attitude. And her fellow female “computers” (number-crunchers forbidden from using the actual telescope) bring the proto-feminist comic relief. Nora Achrati gets the spontaneous applause breaks as an iron-willed suffragette with her own driving need to excel, while Holly Twyford tears into her housekeeper-turned-researcher’s Scottish accent like it’s a delicious steak. Both do a fine job keeping the story moving while showing that intelligence needs wisdom as a working partner.
The mind, not to mention the universe, have no gender, we’re reminded. In case it isn’t clear, Silent Sky — written by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Seema Sueko, and going on now until Feb. 23 at Ford’s — would be a solid evening at the theatre for any young girls in your life.
Rounding out the quintet cast are Emily Kester as Leavitt’s sister, Margaret, a recognizable mix of supportive and concerned, and Jonathan David Martin as the story’s only man, an even more recognizable mix of open-minded but institutionalist. All five actors do great with their roles, though Martin and Harris are given a love story subplot that had me rolling my eyes. As your math teacher used to say, just show me the work!
Ivania Stack’s costumes and André J. Pluess’s sound design are lovely and lavish — you only wish there was more of each. And lighting designer Rui Rita and scenic designer Milagros Ponce de León tag-team the gorgeous starlight effect. Edison bulbs! They’re timely and they’re trendy.
In a strange bit of dissonance toward the end, there’s a worshipful reading of Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” a poem whose rejection of over-analysis is pretty much directly antithetical to Silent Sky‘s philosophy. It’s when the lovey-dovey and the deliberately stirring get out of the way that this show does indeed play among the heavens.
Years ago I was in a play called In the Garden of Live Flowers about Rachel Carson and the writing of Silent Spring. It spent too much time on surreal dream imagery and Alice in Wonderland metaphors, which I was reminded of whenever Silent Sky got swept up its dancing-under-the-stars romance or its rah-rah “be inspired, dammit!” mood. Teaching about important female scientists such as Leavitt or Carson need not involve such woozy trappings, but whenever those bits of business are off the stage, the view from this particular telescope is clear.