Story: In 1893, Henrietta Swan Leavitt fulfilled a long-held dream when she accepted a position with the Harvard College Observatory. Instead of working with a telescope, however, Leavitt became one of the university’s female human “computers,” examining photographic plates to catalog stars observed in the sky.
Leavitt had earned a degree from Radcliffe College, where she developed a “passion” for astronomy. As a woman, however, she was relegated to a position in “Pickering’s harem,” a cluster of ladies including Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming who worked for astronomer and physicist Edward Charles Pickering. They reported directly to Pickering’s intermediary Peter Shaw.
While dutifully handling her responsibilities, Leavitt makes it known to Shaw that she fully expects to be able to work directly with Harvard’s telescope. Eventually impressed with her achievements, Pickering allows Leavitt to pursue her own research at her desk after hours.
Henrietta intermittently receives messages from her sister Margaret back home in Wisconsin informing her about the work of their minister father and also Margie’s own married life, husband and children. The sisters keep in touch through the years, during which time Henrietta shares a charming if slow courtship with the shy Peter, who is in awe of her abilities.
Inspired by her sister’s musical talents, Henrietta eventually strikes upon a theory that leads to an understanding about the relationship between the relative brightness of stars in images of the “Magellanic clouds” and the “period” of Cepheid variable stars. Her research leads to a fundamental shift in the understanding of astronomy, paving the way for later accomplishments by Edwin Hubble and others to this day.
Highlights: The soaring achievements of scientific pioneer Henrietta Leavitt, in the face of sexism and other formidable obstacles, are given inspirational adaptation by playwright Lauren Gunderson. The writer’s wonderful, two-act drama is elegantly performed by a disciplined and motivated West End Players Guild ensemble under Ellie Schwetye’s dazzling direction.
Other Info: The production’s scenic design ratchets up the show’s atmosphere with a floor covered in a celestial rendering as well as a sumptuous video design by Ben Lewis which complements that with the illusion of the vast, star-studded sky. Prior to the show itself the video screen is filled with vintage photos of the actual Henrietta Levitt and other “human computers” at Harvard.
Schwetye provides a stirring sound design filled with other-worldly musical motifs which heighten the effect, as do the antique desks where the poorly-named “Pickering’s harem” worked. It’s all handsomely illuminated by Nathan Schroeder’s lighting design and complemented with the proper attire of turn-of-the-century ladies’ clothing and Peter Shaw’s professional suit as fashioned by Tracy Newcomb.
Schwetye shrewdly utilizes the performance space on the floor below the West End Players Group stage, with Henrietta’s Wisconsin home at stage right and the observatory at center and stage left. She choreographs her players in an almost balletic fashion to accentuate the elegance in their work.
Rachel Tibbetts fills Henrietta with a deep and abiding quest for knowledge. As she tells Peter early in their introduction, “Passion is a dedicated desire unmatched by reason,” to point out the difference in their approaches to their work. The Wikipedia biography of Henrietta Levitt describes her as “selflessly devoted to her family, her church and her career,” which Tibbetts charmingly conveys in her dialogue with the other characters.
Michelle Hand brings a nifty Scottish accent and a fiercely proud demeanor to the role of the determined Williamina Fleming. The one-time servant for Pickering adapted resolutely to her position as one of the women assigned to chart the skies for their male bosses, enabling the latter to accept all the glory for any resultant conclusions. Hand also smartly shows Fleming’s sharp-eyed observations of the developing romance between Henrietta and Shaw in humorous fashion.
Jamie Pitt convincingly depicts the awkward rigidity of the single-focused Annie Cannon, a woman perceptively termed “Dickensian” by Shaw for her eccentric personality and no-nonsense approach to her work. As Margie, Colleen Backer does well showing the complexities of Henrietta’s sister, a woman devoted to her family but also talented enough musically to compose her own symphony.
Graham Emmons offers a delightful turn as Peter Shaw, whose trepidation indicates a man confined to society’s accepted role for him to the point that he loses what his heart most desires. The awkward Peter is similar to the stilted Lord Arthur de Bourgh, the suitor in another appealing Gunderson story, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, which recently concluded a run at The Rep.
Two minor annoyances mar an otherwise pristine presentation. Tibbetts is allowed to wear a streak of green hair in her coiffure, most unlikely for a woman 120 years ago, and Backer drowns out the players’ voices in one scene near the end of Act I with some overly loud piano playing.
Silent Sky is an immensely satisfying drama from both scientific and emotional perspectives. Under Schwetye’s insightful direction, her superbly chosen cast gives us a glimpse into one woman’s triumph above prejudice to achieve everlasting brilliance.
Play: Silent Sky
Group: West End Players Guild
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd.
Dates: February 15, 16, 17, 18
Tickets: $20; contact 367-0025 or WestEndPlayers.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb