Silent Sky is a moving and thoughtful play; it is well worth the gaze of any serious theatergoer.
Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Dori A. Robinson. Staged by Flat Earth Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA, through March 25.
By Erik Nikander
Initially, Silent Sky, a drama about pioneering female astronomer Henrietta Leavitt’s lifelong passion for the cosmos, would seem to be an odd choice to stage in a black box. After all, part of the glory of the night sky is its mysterious and unconquerable vastness; these qualities would seem to be beyond what can be reasonably suggested in a small stage space. But the depth and brilliance of Lauren Gunderson’s text, combined with Flat Earth Theatre’s thoughtful production, proves that cosmic wonder is about more than intimations of vastness. In the text, Leavitt and her female colleagues prove that it’s possible to overcome the limitations of the world around you while remaining true to yourself and your passions. To paraphrase Hamlet, director Dori A. Robinson and her cast and crew may be “bounded in a nutshell,” but they become “kings (and queens) of infinite space.”
Henrietta Leavitt (Erin Eva Butcher) is captivated by the night sky; she feels destined to study and explore it. This calling is one her sister Margaret (Brenna Sweet) and her father don’t understand, but they’re wise enough to realize they can’t stand in its way. When Henrietta is called to work at the Harvard observatory, she jumps at the opportunity. She and her coworkers, Williamina Fleming (Juliet Bowler) and Annie Cannon (Cassandra Meyer), are underpaid and under appreciated though they are tasked with the crucial job of mapping the heavens. As she grows closer to her male colleague Peter Shaw (Marcus Hunter), Henrietta needs to balance the claims of her family life, the possibility of romance, and the fight to gain the recognition she deserves for the work she feels destined to do.
Silent Sky is in many ways a study of institutional sexism at the turn of the 20th century, but Gunderson pulls off the remarkable feat of exploring the gender politics of the period in a way that feels both historically true yet compelling to modern audiences. One of the ways she accomplishes this feat is through her exploration of the aforementioned work/life balance. Henrietta loves her family, but feels an obligation to stay at Harvard and devote herself to her calling. This creates an emotional rift between her and Margaret, who begins to feel that her sister feels more affection for the stars than for her. From Henrietta’s perspective, though, her family and her work are two essential parts of herself: choosing to neglect either would feel like a betrayal. The stigma of being “a professional woman” has faded with time, but the formidable challenge of balancing family and work is one that persists to this day.
In addition, the play’s exploration of gender inequality is convincingly evenhanded. Peter, the sole male character in the play, isn’t malicious; he doesn’t hate the women he works with, he’s just used to living in a society that treats them as subordinates. When he mentions that the team of female astronomers is jokingly referred to as “Pickering’s Harem,” he is taken aback by Henrietta’s hurt response. He’s never considered how demeaning the nickname might be because male privilege is second nature. Eventually, as the two grow closer, the institutional sexism of the time threatens to thwart his happiness as well as hers. ( Peter’s father pressures him to marry someone else.) By refusing to make Peter a woman-hating caricature, Gunderson encourages us to engage with the problem of sexism on a more widespread, institutional level.
Of course, a smart and incisive text still depends on dedicated performers to bring it to life, and the Flat Earth production more than lives up to the expectation. Each member of the cast shines both as an individual and as part of the ensemble. Erin Eva Butcher makes Henrietta’s vision, drive, and affinity for astronomy convincingly captivating. When she’s paired with Brenna Sweet as Margaret, the ’sibling’ chemistry between the two is effortless. Marcus Hunter skillfully realizes Peter’s emotional arc, evoking the joys and disappointments of his character’s relationship with Henrietta. Juliet Bowler embodies the warmth and snarkiness of Williamina, and Cassandra Meyer is adept at playing Annie Cannon as both flint-hard and affectionately loyal. Bowler and Meyer make good use of these inspiring female scientists, helping to flesh out neglected corners of sexist world of the early 1900s.
The technical aspects of the show are understated yet appealing. E. Rosser’s props are detailed enough to establish the reality of an astronomers’ workstation. PJ Strachtman ably defines the different spaces of the play through lighting; some starry projections add a nice bit of dazzle. The costumes designed by Cara Chiaramonte are period-appropriate, and are subtle enough to define the characters’ individual personalities. Silent Sky serves up lots of ‘heavy’ astronomy terms, so the notes (via a a helpful glossary in the program) provided by dramaturgs Joshua Platt and Elizabeth Singer Goldman are much appreciated.
There is much to admire in Flat Earth Theatre’s production of Silent Sky. Are there any negatives? Well, Henrietta seemed fairly uninterested in Peter’s romantic advances during most of the play’s first act; she reciprocates them so suddenly that their subsequent love affair feels a tad unearned. Beyond that odd clumsiness, this critic finds himself in the rare and slightly uncomfortable (if welcome) position of having little to complain about. Silent Sky is a moving, thoughtful play and, in the hands of these dedicated artists, it is well worth the gaze of any serious theatergoer.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.