I found myself almost wishing the dramatist had written a longer play (a rare desire coming from a theater critic). The more time to savor MRT’s production of Silent Sky the better.
Silent Sky by Laura Gunderson. Directed by Sean Daniels. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through November 12.
By Erik Nikander
It’s clear from her first moments on stage that Henrietta Leavitt (Alexis Bronkovic) is an eccentric. Enraptured by the vastness and mystery of the night sky, she bobs back and forth with restlessly curious energy. She strikes a strong contrast to her rock-steady sister Margaret (Victoria Grace), who is more than content with her simple life in the country. Henrietta craves more. Summoned to Harvard to map the stars as part of a team of female “computers,” she dives into her groundbreaking work and struggles to balance the professional, familial, and romantic obligations that tug her in conflicting directions.
If that summary of Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky sounds familiar to faithful Arts Fuse readers, it may be because I reviewed another production of the same script last season, put on by Flat Earth Theatre in Watertown, MA. I noted that that production overcame its technical limitations through heartfelt performances and Gunderson’s excellent script; the MRT production, directed by Sean Daniels, has no such limitations to overcome. The set, designed by James J. Fenton (who also provided the gorgeous scenic work for last season’s Abigail/1702) is as breathtaking and icy as outer space, a glittering black behemoth with a gold-and-ebony spider web etched into its great round floor.
In a weak production, such a grand, imposing set could threaten to distract from the actual drama onstage. Fortunately, Daniels’s cast, led by Bronkovic, exudes ample compassion and genuine warmth. Bronkovic herself is adept at playing Henrietta’s creative verve; the way she shuffles and paces about — a modern woman locked in stiff period costume — evokes the image of a lightning bug trapped in a jar. Silent Sky brilliantly translates the highs and lows of scientific discovery into compelling drama, and Bronkovic personifies this drama with passion, giving life to Henrietta’s soaring “Eureka!” moments as well as her stretches of crushing self-doubt. Her unreserved wonderment at the splendor of the universe is something special to behold.
The supporting cast likewise does an excellent job at rounding out Henrietta’s world. Julia Brothers plays Williamina Fleming, the senior “computer” in Henrietta’s team, with wry, maternal warmth. Fleming exudes grace and wisdom, comforting but never coddling her young colleague, and Brothers strikes this tricky balance magnificently. As curt firebrand Annie Cannon, Polly Lee is initially sharp and terrifying but the actor soon becomes a hilarious crowd favorite; she can’t help but steal just about every scene Cannon appears in. Peter Shaw, Henrietta’s boss (and eventual suitor), is played by Tom Coiner, who gives the character an air of bumbling likability. While Peter isn’t quite as clever or forward-thinking as Henrietta, the two share an awkward enthusiasm that makes their attraction convincing.
As mentioned above, Victoria Grace provides a steady, domestic contrast to Henrietta’s more worldly ways in her portrayal of Margaret, the astronomer’s musically-gifted sister. Sean Daniels’s direction highlights the often fraught relationship between the two; as their uneasy letter-correspondence plays out as a conversation on stage, the two sisters gaze out in opposite directions. Daniels also makes good use of the multi-level set, utilizing a balcony platform as both a podium in a college lecture hall and the deck railing of a cruise ship. What could, in other hands, be an imposing staging area instead is rendered dramatically flexible. In Daniels’s hands, the technical aspects of the show, especially lighting designer Brian J. Lilienthal’s depiction of the cosmos, serve as exciting accents without obscuring the core human relationships.
That the production strikes an excellent balance between heart and technical aptitude is significant because Gunderson’s script manages a similar tightrope walk. She frames a moment of scientific achievement as an emotional struggle; Henrietta yearns to make a contribution to the field she’s most passionate about, but is forced to grapple with self-doubt regarding her ability to do so. More than just a play about astronomy, Silent Sky powerfully expresses the universal desire to leave a personal legacy, to matter in some real way to the generations to come. Which isn’t to say that this persistent question is the only matter the play is concerned about; it touches adroitly on issues of institutional sexism, the battle between traditionalism and the cutting edge, and the incessant struggle to juggle the work you love with the relationships that make life meaningful. All of these timeless conflicts weave together into a satisfying theatrical tapestry.
One of the most refreshing elements in Silent Sky is that it does without a real antagonist in the traditional sense. Yes, Peter and the other male astronomers undervalue their female colleagues’ contributions, but most of the conflict is grounded in Henrietta’s internal struggles. Towards the end of the play, as Henrietta draws closer to the end of her life, her most pressing enemy is time. She’s built a rich, full life for herself (unconventional though it may be), full of people she values and work that makes a difference to the world as a whole, but she finds herself running out of time to enjoy it. Likewise, I found myself almost wishing the dramatist had written a longer play (a rare desire coming from a theater critic). The more time to savor MRT’s production of Silent Sky the better; its brilliant, gutsy performers and all of its surprising flourishes of stagecraft ought to be relished.
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.