SALT LAKE CITY — Pygmalion Theatre in Salt Lake City is producing Silent Sky, which is based on the story of Henrietta Leavitt, a woman who was a female “computer” at the Harvard Observatory in the early 20th century. Like countless other women of her time, she had to fight to get credit for her discoveries. The story also follows love and family and other significant factors of this woman’s rich history. Silent Sky was written by Lauren Gunderson, who has been named the most produced living playwright in 2016. This production was directed by Mark Fossen, who orchestrated a beautiful story with a lot of graceful and intelligent decisions that helped the audience focus on the wonder of the scientific discoveries of Ms. Leavitt, played by Hannah Minshew, while also focusing on the intimate relationships that are complicated by time and space.
The first element of the show that impressed me was the lighting design by Pilar Davis. For a show about astronomy, the lighting choices are integral to the feel of the production. I was impressed with the balance that Davis brought to the show by giving the lighting enough focus but not making it overpowering. I also felt the elements of costume design by Michael Nielsen and scenic design by Thomas George were true to the time period and also gave a great ambiance to the entire experience.
In intimate productions it is a wonderful and rare treat to see the entire cast excel to such a point that every actor deserves praise. Fossen has brought together such a show with the cast of silent sky. Minshew is utterly charming as Henrietta Leavitt, showing a strong persistence in her acting to the dedication to her work along with the love and desire to help her family. It is also impressive to see how Leavitt is able to stand up for herself and her ideas while still seeming humble and approachable. In one scene, where Minshew is reciting a monologue comparing the science of the starts to the pattern of music, I was very taken by the enthusiasm she was able to convey. Henrietta’s sister, Margaret Leavitt, played by Brenda Hattingh, provided an excellent balance teaching the importance of keeping family together no matter the work or issues that come in the way. I was very impressed by how Hattingh was able to portray someone who is worried about the family dynamic without appearing overly jealous or bitter. The two actors had excellent chemistry, and brought about the real pain that can be had when separation or different goals get in the way of their sisterly relationship.
Michael Scott Johnson played Peter Shaw, Henrietta’s coworker and potential love interest. Johnson was endearingly awkward and yet open in his portrayal of a man who is fascinated by the intelligence of the woman in front of him yet still confused about the different gender roles proscribed by the time and academic situation. But perhaps my favorite performers were the duo of Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, fellow computers of Henrietta played by Elizabeth Golden and Teresa Sanderson, respectively. The pair help Henrietta understand how to handle her role while also teaching and encouraging her to work hard and stand up for the findings she discovers and get the credit she deserves. Additionally, the humor that Sanderson brings to the role was simply delightful. I found myself smiling every time she was on the stage because I knew that there would be humor backed up with a strength that is admirable.
This story was a beautiful portrayal of the stories that are often not told when the history books are written. Gunderson does an amazing job of teaching the idea of perspective through the story of one of the many female unsung heroes of science. In one of the line, the script asks, “Is all that we see the extent of the universe?” This is one of the many reasons that the arts are such an important medium to support, because there is so much more to the universe than what we can see. Additionally, Minshew delivered one of the best lines I have heard in theatre when she was describing the stars over the ocean and said that she hoped that picture technology would never get that strong because it would kind of miss the point. Over a century later, we do have that picture technology and more, but the line struck me because it echoes the reason I love live theatre, support the consumption of arts in local, live form, and am grateful for the chance to critique and advertise for the Utah theatrical community. Yes, we have a myriad of entertainment at our fingertips now, but though a movie or a video can bring entertainment and joy, it often misses the point of the live, in the moment experience that the entire audience has with the players and production team. It is an element of the arts that I hope we never lose, because if we did, what would be the point?