PROVO — The Covey Center for the Arts in Provo is presenting Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson, directed by David Morgan. The show is in the facility’s Brinton Black Box, which gives the production quite an intimate feel.
Silent Sky follows the true story of Henrietta Leavitt, played by Rachel Ryan Nicholes, a 19th-century astronomer who had some major discoveries that changed the scientific world, even though she faced an uphill battle because of her sex. Gunderson’s play mixes mostly fact with some fiction to create a story that is not as well known as it should be, and gives the audience a look into the challenges of women in the late 1800s.
When I first walked into the black box at the Covey Center, I was taken by the scenic design by Robert Seely. On the back wall was a beautiful astronomy piece, and the stage was set as an office where the original computers of Harvard, women who compute, worked. The magnificent lighting design by Spencer Powell poignantly incorporated the theme of stars and sky into the production. The ends of the first and second acts in particular utilized lighting in a breathtaking fashion that powerfully conveyed the importance of Leavitt’s discovery, and why this story is important to tell.
Costume, hair and makeup design by Elizabeth Crandall was right on point for the time period. I found myself particularly taken by the hearing aid worn by Rachel Ryan Nicholes because the character of Henrietta was hard of hearing. I looked it up after the show, and it appears similar to what would have been worn at the turn of the 1900 century. I found it fascinating that a woman with such scientific education and understanding would have had the use of a hearing aid. This level of technical detail was a small but strong element that truly benefited the production.
The cast of this production was quite small. Joining Rachel Ryan Nicholes was Christie Gardiner as Margaret Leavitt, whose character represents a conglomeration of the sisters that Henrietta left behind when going to work at Harvard. The characters at Harvard include real life computers Williamina Felming, played by Annadee Morgan; Annie Cannon, played by Alexis Boss; and Peter Shaw, a fictional representation of male colleagues played by Jordan Nicholes.
Seeing as the Nicholes are a married couple based on comments in their bios, it was not surprising that they had a lot of chemistry within their performances. I appreciated how Jordan Nicholes played the role in the first act with a significant level of awkwardness, which made the mean-spirited monologue of the second act more poignant. At the same time, the even-tempered nature of Rachel Ryan Nicholes’s character made the fact that the scientific achievements required patience and precision quite believable. While I felt the love story was unnecessary because of the lack of historical accuracy (Leavitt’s own story is compelling enough without it), the two actors certainly portrayed the romance well.
Boss and Morgan were delightful as the other two computers. Morgan’s Irish accent was a treat to listen to, and Boss ably characterized a woman who had learned that a woman has to work five times as hard as a man—but even then, will not get any recognition. The enjoyable banter between these women was an delightful element that really made the show a treasure. And the contrast of the home that Leavitt left behind, portrayed so well by Gardiner, was a haunting portrayal of the sacrifices that individuals make when they pursue things that are more than just careers, but all consuming passions. Gardiner showed a character who loved her sister, but also longed to be seen as important and connected in her own right.
As Silent Sky‘s story progresses, moments and characters appear that even the scientifically inept (such as this writer) will recognize—like pioneering astronomer Edwin Hubble, who contacts Leavitt about her findings and whose namesake telescope (launched long after his death in 1963) continues to make noteworthy discoveries. These moments help the audience understand just how important Leavitt’s discovery really was. Even still, there are basic decencies and connections that are withheld because of the gender expectations of the time. This story remains timeless because we still see careers that are experiencing gatekeeping based on antiquated gender norms.