On Saturday, I saw the Walterdale Playhouse production of Silent Sky, written by Lauren Gunderson, about Henrietta Leavitt, the early 20th century astronomer who discovered a relationship between the brightness of a star and the intervals of its blinking. She realized this could be used to measure the distance between the Earth and the stars, and between the stars.
Henrietta worked in an all-female group (the principal investigator actually called it a “math harem”) of “computers” (a tradition that extended to the 1960s mathematicians depicted in the movie Hidden Figures) who did the grunt work of analyzing glass photographic plates made from the big observational telescope at Harvard. Women were not allowed to peer out of the telescope itself. The play depicted how much Henrietta and her colleagues loved the work, despite the small-mindedness of the male faculty.
The patriarchal establishment is represented by a fictional character named Shaw, who also serves both a love interest for Henrietta and as a metaphor for Henrietta’s complicated relationship with the research field as it was then administered. Shaw embodies the saying, “You can tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much!” At one point, he asserts that there is nothing beyond than the Milky Way, despite the evidence Henrietta has amassed to indicate otherwise. He insists that science must follow a logical path, quoting Newton’s phrase, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
But a narrow interpretation of the phrase does not allow for innovation, differing viewpoints, or plain luck. Happily, the play avoids reductive characterizations. While Shaw stood in for the scientific establishment, Henrietta’s fictional sister, Margaret, stood in for the small-town domestic life that Henrietta might have been expected to lead. Both Shaw and Margaret comes around to acknowledge the value of Henrietta’s grand pursuit of truth, no matter how large and how shattering it may be.
Although the subject of Silent Sky is scientific discovery, music has a large role in the play. It’s used as a metaphor for Henrietta’s scientific theories, and the set is ingeniously dressed in suggest both musical scales and constellations. (Hats off to Beyata Hackborn, the show’s set designer and lighting designer.)
Director Kim Mattice Wanat, founder and artistic director of Opera NUOVA, knows her way around music. She weaves the Congregationalist hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” through out the play, pulling together all the notes and themes of the show. She also works with a wonderful cast. Lauren Hughes is bright and undaunted as Henrietta. Joy van de Ligt provided music and grounded foil as Margaret. Susanne Ritchie and Samantha Woolsey are both fun and authoritative as Henrietta’s non-fiction “harem” mates, Wiliamina Fleming (who discovered the first white dwarf star) and Annie Jump Cannon (who created a classification system of the stars and became a leader of the suffragette movement). Matt Mihilewicz brought physical humour and a believable change in sensibility as Shaw.
I saw the show with three physicists, including one astronomer. The production impressed us all. Four stars for Silent Sky!
Silent Sky is at the Walterdale Theatre until October 12.