Updated: Nov 16, 2021
"This show is a gift to all of us. Go see it — it demands to be seen and shared and reveled in."
The day-to-day work of scientists usually does not lend itself to great drama — routine tasks such as observing phenomena, recording data, and analyzing results are essential, but rather mundane activities...unless you’re geared that way. However, the exhilaration of a scientific breakthrough that affects the whole universe can make for terrific drama. Such is the case in “Silent Sky,” Lauren Gunderson's play about early 1900’s astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, a pioneer among women in her field, which opened last weekend at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
“Silent Sky's” straightforward biographical narrative starts in 1893 when Henrietta is offered a position by Professor Edward Charles Pickering, a Harvard astronomer. A graduate of Radcliffe, Henrietta had returned to her rural Wisconsin home shared with her Congregational minister father and her sister Margaret. She had taken advanced classes in astronomy and, though she had not earned her degree in that field, she was inspired to commit her life to it — so much that she persuades her father to subsidize her work under Dr. Pickering.
But at Harvard, Henrietta is chagrinned to learn that her position is as a "computer," the job title for women who transcribe data from photographs taken at observatories around the world for Pickering's project to map the universe. He pompously calls them his "Pickering's Harem." When Henrietta is told by Peter Shaw, Pickering's protégé and supervisor of the women, that the sobriquet is meant as a compliment, she responds "If you're a concubine!" Henrietta is even more alarmed to learn that women are forbidden use of the powerful telescope at Harvard's observatory.
Still, she accepts the position, earning the trust and friendship of colleagues Annie Jump Cannon, a grim suffragette, and Williamina Fleming, a life-affirming Scottish woman (both were real personages in "Pickering's Harem"). In this exquisite blend of science, family ties and fragile love, this passionate, headstrong young woman must navigate her own passage against the backdrop of World War I, Einstein’s discoveries and the suffragette movement.
Before Leavitt discovered the period-luminosity technique, the only methods available to astronomers for measuring the distance to a star were based on parallax and triangulation. Such techniques can only be used for measuring distances up to hundreds of light years. Leavitt's work allowed astronomers to measure distances up to about 20 million light years. As a result of this, it is now known that our own galaxy, the Milky Way, has a diameter of about 100,000 light years. After Leavitt's death, Edwin Hubble used Leavitt's period-luminosity relation, together with the galactic spectral shifts first measured by Vesto Slipher at Lowell Observatory, to establish that the universe is expanding.
The cast is stunning. Kendall Sinclair (in her CMP debut) as Henrietta, has the showiest part. She is loving and warm, and nothing short of brilliant. The moments in the play where we see Henrietta making her discovery are infused with realism and passion, composed of a multitude of layers.
Sarah McGuire's (“How to Succed in Business Without Really Trying”) Margaret, Henrietta's sister, is traditional, musically talented and “a proper Christian woman.” Ms. McGuire portrays Margaret’s relationship with Henrietta with natural rhythms, rises and falls, yet the two sisters grow together and not apart, despite their differences. The tension between the subject of science versus religion is handled beautifully by both actors.
Throughout the play, the wonder of scientific discovery is described in artistic terms. Margaret’s music inspires Henrietta to open her mind about the data she has been studying, just as a Walt Whitman poem sent by her father reminds Henrietta that math does not fully encompass the beauty of the “mystical” night sky.
As the two female co-workers at the observatory, Marlene Galan Woods (“Three Tall Women”) is a stern and meticulous Annie Jump Cannon, believable as a fighter for women's rights, while Jennifer Walquist (“Silence! The Musical”) invests Williamina Fleming with great warmth and a bawdiness that provides balance to the trio of "computers." She also does very well by way of her Scottish brogue.
David Rodriguez (“Bonnie & Clyde”) is delightfully bumbling as Peter Shaw, earning our affection as he wins hers, making it all the more wrenching when circumstances come between them. When Shaw says that Henrietta is the brightest object he's seen "and we work with the stars!" the exuberance Mr. Rodriguez brings to the part is quite endearing.
Kathy Paladino's (“2019 LA Times OC Woman of the Year in Theater”) direction and production design is top drawer, steering great individual performances that fleshes out well-written characters. Set design by CMP’s president and treasurer, Mike Brown and Steve Endicott, is beautifully functional, assisted with final touches by JD Theatricals’ owner, Jim Huffman. Costume design by Beatrice Gray is turn of the century à la mode, Victorian come to America. Lighting design by Ryan Linhardt is detailed and spot perfect. Amanda Blazey creates realistic and intricate props. And projection design by Victoria Sera is an important element of this play, with its moving heavenly bodies on display, especially in the second act.
Atlanta native Lauren Gunderson’s luminously beautiful play, “Silent Sky,” continues at Costa Mesa Playhouse (beginning their 56th season!), through October 17th. An intellectual epic told on an intimate scale, this graceful confluence of cast, script, direction and staging brings this incredible story fully to life. This show is a gift to all of us. Go see it — it demands to be seen and shared and reveled in.
Costa Mesa Playhouse is located at 661 Hamilton St, Costa Mesa, CA. Ticketholders must be fully vaccinated against Covid-19. If you are visiting the theater 14 days after your final vaccine dose you must bring a photo ID and proof of vaccination, either your physical vaccination card, a picture of the card, or a digital vaccination record. Tickets from $20.00 - $22.00; senior and student discounts available. For information and tickets call (949) 650-5269 or visit https://costamesaplayhouse.com/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credit: Stephanie Garrison