A Woman’s Cosmos In A Man’s World
By Tom Wachunas
Without waxing too technical about the specifics of Henrietta Leavitt’s (1868-1921) contributions to our knowledge of the cosmos, suffice it to say that in her tireless work as an astronomer at Harvard College Observatory in the early years of the 20th century, she essentially paved the way for deciphering how we determine the age and size of the universe. Inspired by Leavitt’s life, playwright Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky is a truly remarkable accomplishment. Gunderson’s lovingly crafted masterpiece of equipoise is an emotionally gripping look at an insatiable pursuit of arcane science amidst equally compelling yearnings of the human heart. For a more comprehensive look at the play and its history, here’s a very useful link:
On the cusp of Women’s History Month, this current production is directed by Brian Newberg, Associate Professor of Theatre & Theatre Director of the Kent State Stark Theatre Program. He has assembled a sharp and sensitive ensemble of five gifted individuals who deliver a wondrously nuanced performance, replete with both pathos and humor that’s, well… stellar in every sense of the word. Even the elegant simplicity of the scenic design by Louis Williams – with a stage set made up of a few pieces of furniture and a raised, railed platform that doubles at one point as the deck of and ocean vessel – is often infused with projections of starry nights and Milky Way panoramas.
The timeline is 1900-1920. Cashing in her dowry, Henrietta Leavitt (Morgan Brown) leaves her home where she’s been living with her musician sister, Margaret (Emily Weiss), and father, a Congregational Church minister, to live her dream of doing serious research as an astronomer at Harvard College Observatory. There, she’s quickly mortified and frustrated to learn that she was hired only to count stars and measure their luminosity as recorded on glass plate photographs made by the grand telescope which women are not allowed to use. She and her co-workers, Annie Cannon (Breanna Morton) and Williamina Fleming (Jacki Dietz), are regarded by their male bosses, including their immediate supervisor, Peter Shaw (Jesse Fulks), simply as “human computers” – bean counters, as it were. Ever undaunted – even obsessive - in her insistence on finding the truth and meaning of her/our place in our galaxy (and beyond, as it turns out), Leavitt discovers not only significant physical realities, but much about herself as well. The education of head and heart. Just so, she sacrifices much, in the process eschewing society’s traditional expectations of romance and domestic family life.
Imagine the cast as a solar system, with Morgan Brown’s radiant portrayal of Leavitt as the center, holding the other characters – luminous entities in their own right – in orbit. Brown is not just believable, but also wholly magnetic as she articulates Leavitt’s longing and struggle to affirm her identity in an unsympathetic, indeed oppressive patriarchal milieu. She forges an increasingly sturdy bond with her office colleagues. Breanna Morton, as Annie, is at first a distant and demanding taskmaster, but visibly softens as her understanding of, and support for, Leavitt grows. No doubt her softening is greatly aided by Jacki Dietz’s charismatic portrait of the feisty, no-nonsense Williamina. In her startlingly authentic Scottish accent, Dietz provides many of the evening’s wisest observations and funniest passages.
Meanwhile, Jesse Fulks, often a target of the ladies’ ridicule, brings an exquisitely crafted awkwardness and shyness to his reading of Peter Shaw, apprentice to the observatory’s head scientist, Dr. Pickering. His respect for, then infatuation with Leavitt, blossoms into a matter of the heart, the hope of a nervous suitor, as he at one point asks her, just before embarking on a research trip to Europe, if they could “…continue the experiment of our mutual compatibility” when he returns. So OK, he’s a scientist, not a poet. Still, this play has as much if not more poetry than astrophysics.
Through it all, Emily Weiss convincingly presents Leavitt’s sister, Margaret, as a faithful homemaker while caring for their ailing father. Gentle and patient if not occasionally resentful, she’s the picture of sincerity as she desperately tries to grasp the depths of her sister’s impassioned search for answers to cosmic questions.
In fact it’s Margaret’s playing a lilting melody on her piano that spurs Henrietta to ultimately see the music of the spheres, as it were… to discern an order and pattern to those puzzling pulses of light visible from across impossible distances. The play concludes on a bittersweet albeit tender note. It’s an altogether inspiring remembrance of Leavitt’s legacy.
More importantly, in these volatile times, the play is a timely beacon and an urgent reminder. Gender bias should never be permitted to squelch our pursuit of knowledge, the affirmation of our purpose, or the realization of our destinies.
Silent Sky, at Kent State University At Stark Theatre / Located in the Fine Arts building on Kent Stark campus, 6000 Frank Ave. NW in North Canton / Performances Feb. 25, March 3 & 4 at 7:30 p.m. / Feb. 26 & March 5 at 2 p.m. / Tickets: $10 for adults and $7 for non-Kent State students and senior citizens. All Kent State students admitted free of charge with current student ID. For more information about the show and ensemble members, or to reserve tickets online, go to www.kent.edu/stark/theatre or call the Kent State Stark Theatre Box Office at 330-244-3348, Mondays through Fridays from 1 to 5 p.m.
TOP PHOTO, left to right: Emily Weiss, Jesse Fulks, Jacki Dietz, Morgan Brown, Breanna Morton