SANDY — An inspiring and stellar tale, Silent Sky first premiered in 2015. Following the true story of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, Hale Center Theatre presents Lauren Gunderson’s historical fiction that shows the true meaning of reaching for the stars. Fraught with themes of feminism, the show demonstrates the challenges women in science have endured and is fittingly complemented with all an female design team. Silent Sky is thought provoking, poignant, and excellently delivered.
Henrietta Leavitt’s story begins shortly after the turn of the 19th century. Leavitt has a fiery passion for science and longs to get her hands on meaningful work. Despite her family’s reservations, Henrietta leaves home to work at the Harvard Observatory. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, Henrietta arrives at Harvard asking to jump right in and see the telescope. She quickly finds that women are not allowed to use the telescope and that her work is limited to a supporting role of computing figures whereas the men work the telescope and give direction. Henrietta pushes the limits, challenges status quo, and works extra hours on her own time. She develops a romantic interest with her colleague Peter Shaw and tries to navigate a career and personal life where she doesn’t fit in a traditional women’s role. Wanting to find her place in the universe, Henrietta discovers the calculations to do just that.
While the greatest themes of Silent Sky are feminism, perseverance, and science, the play has additional layers of depth. Themes of heaven and religion, existentialism, career versus family, and art’s role in science abound. The dialogue and script are aptly effective at subtlety drawing on a myriad of life’s big questions while still staying true to Henrietta’s story. Henrietta’s smart and beautiful story is presented thoughtfully and stunningly by HCT’s design team. The scenic and projection design by Madeline Ashton is immaculately detailed and attentive. Towering over the stage, a wheel in the sky is fully adorned with constellations. Even the stairs to the large set piece that converts for difference scenes show different lunar phases on each step. The projection is appropriately used sparingly, with a big finish at the end of the play. I personally do not like an overproduction of digital media in theatre and found that Silent Sky had just the right touch of digital enhancement, toning it down where acting needed to be the focus of a scene. Marianne Ohran’s light design perfectly complements the workings of Ashton with twinkling stars appearing in big emotional or inspirational moments. In costume, Peggy Willis creates authentic period pieces with even the stage techs dressed for the period. The design team’s efforts as a whole were wonderfully astute and cohesive.
Director Barta Heiner did a fantastic job of utilizing her design team and cast to tell this story in an engaging and moving manner. Heiner created scenes in which the audience is filled with passion and an excitement for life such as when Henrietta makes her big discovery. But there are also raw and emotional scenes such as the dissolution of Peter and Henrietta’s relationship where Heiner successfully uses dialogue in which the actors read their letters to one another. The ending of the play is incredibly momentous and serves Henrietta Leavitt’s heartening legacy well.
As Henrietta, Amber Dodge gives an impassioned performance. Dodge as Leavitt is convincing in her defiance against the system, her disappointments in love, and her acceptance of mortality. Eager and steadfast, Dodge as Leavitt brings this story to life in a decided manner. I felt her guilt for being away from her family who needed her, her heartache when things went south with Peter, and her anguish in being told she couldn’t do what the men did. Ben Parkes plays Peter Shaw alongside Dodge, and they have a believable chemistry with gripping scenes including the betrayal of Peter not supporting her theories and their heartfelt friendly reconciliation after love lost.
While most of the play erred on the serious side, Kim Abunuwara as Williamina Fleming brought a welcome comedic relief. Abunuwara was hilarious as the Scottish sparkplug. The character of Fleming had an abundance of both witty and funny one liners and truly added to the flow and dynamic of the show. Although not without some stumbled deliveries, the cast did a marvelous job of portraying the magnitude and significance of Henrietta’s life and work.
Silent Sky is a welcome and refreshing show choice by Hale. I left the play feeling invigorated, motivated, and most of all relieved that I am a career woman in 2022 and not 1910. This smart play introduces countless thought-provoking ideas. Silent Sky resounds in contexts from feminism to art to human existence. With so much to glean from this play, there surely is something for everyone.