With Mount Wilson Observatory and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in our back yard, Lauren Gunderson’s 2011 “Silent Sky” seems a natural resident at Sierra Madre Playhouse.
By Carol Edger Germain
The play entertains with fact and humor and characters of substance, and educates regarding a critical scientific discover. It explores the true story of Radcliffe-educated astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (Ann Marie Wilding) at the beginning of the 20th century. Her urgent determination to explore the universe led her to leave her traditional homelife and accept a position at the Harvard College Observatory under Professor Edward Charles Pickering. Her work there led her to devise the means of calculating a star’s magnitude, calculating the distance of stars as far as ten million light years away, which confirmed scientifically for the first time that the universe is infinite. Her brilliance and determination drove her, in spite of the supposedly insurmountable obstacles. She found workarounds, as well as associates who, although initially recommending that she merely go along with the protocol, eventually fed on the energy of her laser-focused quest and were in the whirlwind with her all the way thereafter, and the audience feels it as well.
The feisty, witty, joke-popping Scottish Williamina Fleming (Aubrey Saverino) and the initially practical, no-nonsense, forceful Annie Cannon (Candida Celaya) are perfect as co-conspirators. There is a bit of romance involved, which nervously bubbles around her in the form of professor’s assistant Peter Shaw (Jack Menzies), who is determined to woo her dashingly without making a fool of himself and sometimes succeeds). Sister Margaret/Margie (April Elize) chose the traditional path but needs her sister, and repeatedly tries to maintain the connection and inform Henrietta of what is going on at home with the family in Wisconsin.
The audience easily connects with Henrietta, without needing to understand the research, terms, and calculations involved. Our excitement grows as she gets closer to proving her theory. Other issues of the time, as well as the circumstances of her personal life, are woven into the story and we connect with her human needs, complications, and ultimately, her untimely demise. My favorite line from Henrietta is “The mind is sexless.” Very well done, all the way through, with some interesting techniques used to convey connection and disconnection, literally and figuratively.
"Silent Sky" Through Oct. 9 Sierra Madre Playhouse Ann Marie Wilding (Henrietta Leavitt) April Elize (Margaret Leavitt) Candida Celaya (Annie Cannon) Williamina Fleming (Aubrey Saverino) Peter Shaw (Jack Menzies) By Lauren Gunderson Director and Set Design – Barbara Schofield Music – Jenny Giering Lighting Designer – Derek Jones Sound Design – John Dimitri
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