Addison — WaterTower Theatre’s latest offering, Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson, tells the story of Henrietta Leavitt, a significant figure in the history of science whose work is even more remarkable by virtue of her being a woman in the field of astronomy at the dawn of the 20th century.
Our unfamiliarity with her name or accomplishments may be a result of time and distance, but they shouldn’t diminish her impact. After all, the stars that show up in the sky as tiny twinkles, when not drowned out by our own sun, are giants in their own context, pulling with gravity and warming with light. Astronomers give voice to those far off stars and sometimes playwrights give voice to those astronomers. In either case, their work, bridging time and distance, helps us find our place in the universe.
Matter in context.
Set designer Clare Floyd Devries begins the play before a character makes an appearance. Take a moment at the foot of the stage before finding your seat to get the full impact of the semicircular backdrop covered in textured painted planks laid vertically from horizon to the heavens. It’s a dizzying display of eye-tricking depth. Later lighting designer Leann Burns will take the tricks to another level. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is a design worthy of WaterTower Theatre’s space.
On her first appearance as Henrietta Leavitt, Anastasia Munoz lets the scale juxtaposition work for her—dwarfed by the enormity of it all and yet somehow eager to fill it. If you take science as your standard and believe that gases expand to the shape of their container, then discovering that container is pretty important. By contrast, her sister Margaret Leavitt (Sarah Elizabeth Price) would draw her sister inside to hear their father’s sermon and play the organ for services. Their opening scene suffers the understandable strain of historical exposition, but something else is amiss. Director Kelsey Leigh Ervi lets the actresses play the sisterly agreeableness at the expense of letting the gears of drama engage. It’s all a little too smooth. Not to worry, things will go wrong soon enough.
Perhaps the playwright knew that the quickest way to complicate things would be to introduce a male character (however fictional), Peter Shaw. Oor perhaps Mitchell Stephens, who plays him, brings out Munoz’s fighting spirit. Either way the show finds traction with his entrance. He’s the assistant to Professor Pickering, who has invited Ms. Leavitt to Harvard Observatory. She’s to work as a “human computer” counting stars on glass plate photographs taken with the telescope that’s actually off-limits to women. This is not exactly what she had in mind when she cashed in her dowry and left Wisconsin for a life in science.
To her credit (and our benefit) she sticks it out, aided by two historical characters: Annie Cannon (Marianne Galloway) and Willamina Fleming (Shannon J. McGrann). If the evening found its feet with the introduction of Mr. Shaw, this duo gives it wings.
Galloway creates a terse Cannon softened by sure-handed comic economy. As the head of the women working on this project she must maintain high standards. Her foil is the motherly Williamina, played by McGrann with an abundance of fairy-godmother charisma. They make a fantastic comic duo.
Gunderson uses them as guiding influences, as well as a means to bring the offstage struggles for women’s equality onstage. (Costume designer Sylvia Fuhrken Marrs enjoys the period costuming here.) In actual fact, Dr. Pickering had made the claim that his housekeeper could do a better job than his academic staff. To make good on his threat, he brought in Williamina and she did. Sometimes the real story is better than anything you could make up.
All of these characters orbit our heroine, Henrietta. Munoz is the meat on the bone of this historical fiction. She breathes life into the real struggle between home and work, love and work and, in the end, life and work. In a lawfully Newtonian way, the more one pulls, the other pulls back. Munoz keeps the struggle real, but with always a little exhilarated hopefulness to tip the scales toward wonder. Her final monologue pulls the audience into ovation with its brave hope.
In the end, Leavitt’s Law established a way to decipher a star’s distance as a function of its pulse. Hubble, of the telescope fame, used her discovery to prove the universe was much larger than expected. And, in fact, expanding.
She died a year before women got the vote. Hopefully, we can say that it is still expanding. Especially if you believe that we take the shape of our container.