Oh, heavenly days. “Silent Sky” is the true story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a historic but unsung astronomer at Harvard University’s observatory in the early 1900s. She made ground-breaking advances despite never being allowed to use a telescope.
Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky” is a poignant and sweet look at Leavitt’s ambition, desires and accomplishments, cleverly punctuated with bursts of humor. Melanie Keller artfully directs the Chicago premiere at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook.
The play opens with Leavitt leaving her Wisconsin home to become one of the backroom “computer ladies” who map the sky using photographic images on glass plates. It’s a tedious job far beneath the menfolk. Meanwhile, her sister stays behind to raise a family.
Leavitt immerses herself in the work. She not only discovers about 2,400 previously unknown variable stars but also discovered the relationship between luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars.
Her findings, for which she received little credit, paved the way for other astronomers to measure stellar distances.
Gunderson, who received the 2016 Lanford Wilson Award from the Dramatists Guild, explores societal themes that are relevant a century later: marriage and motherhood versus career, chauvinistic attitudes toward women in the workplace, and the quest for knowledge.
The script contains enough real science to lend authority but not so much that dazes the audience. The romantic interlude seems a bit contrived. However, it serves to show the sisters are not so different after all.
The entire cast delivers performances that sparkle. Especially notable is Cassandra Bissell, who plays Leavitt with both determination and vulnerability. Hayley Rice is the pleasant, kindly married sister Margaret.
Jeannie Affelder as Annie Cannon and Belinda Bremner as Williamina Fleming are Leavitt’s work colleagues who, by the play’s end, have joined the suffragette movement. Wardell Julius Clark is perfectly pompous as their boss.
Special mention goes to Michael McNamara, whose lighting design has us believing we truly are looking into the cosmos..
Details: ‘Silent Sky’ is at First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, through April 30. For tickets and other information, call (630) 986-8067 or visit First Folio.
Reviewed by Pamela Dittmer McKuen
(Guest reviewer Pamela Dittmer McKuen is an independent journalist and author who specializes in home, architecture, fashion and travel. Her bylines have appeared in the Chicago Tribune plus dozens of consumer, trade, association, corporate and collegiate publications. Visit her travel blog at allthewriteplaces.)