By Greggory Moore, Curtain Call Columnist
Unless you’re quite the astronomy nerd, you’ve never heard of Henrietta Leavitt, but it’s partly because of her that you know the universe is expanding. Edwin Hubble (yes, the Hubble Space Telescope is named for him) made this discovery using the fruits of her 20-year career as a “computer” at Harvard College Observatory.
Although the real-life Leavitt didn’t live to know what a lasting contribution she made to humanity, with Silent Sky playwright Lauren Gunderson imagines a Henrietta who glimpsed the possibility of such permanent connections, and perhaps even her own place among them.
We meet Henrietta (Loren Bowen) as a hearing-impaired, Radcliffe-educated thirtysomething simply dying to get out of rural Wisconsin. The world out there is simply too vast for such an intellectually curious person to spend her life in such an isolated place. So with the help of younger sister Margaret (Amber Hill), she is able to use her dowry money to finance her Massachusetts move so she can undertake her dream career: studying the heavens.
Upon arrival, however, she is disappointed to find that, rather than manning the telescope, her gender relegates her to the woman’s work of computing, which in 1900 means manually processing data ― in this case, cataloging the celestial objects captured on photographic plates by the male astronomers who get to use Harvard’s big refracting telescope. With little choice, she pours her disappointed passion into this work, and before long she is turning heads with the quality of her findings. One of those heads belongs to her supervisor, Peter (Austin James), who comes to be even more impressed by her spirit.
But neither science nor women’s rights is the focus of Silent Sky (although both get a bit of play). Gunderson’s target is human connection, how we find ourselves ― together and alone ― in the virtually endless expanse of space and time, how we find meaning, how we find something that lasts.
Alas, Gunderson misses bull’s-eye. There’s simply too much speechifying and too little earned humanity in her text. This isn’t the fault of the actors, who more often than not make it feel as real as anybody could. For example, Bowen and Hill give us some palpable sisterly affection. But as Act One drags on three scenes too long and pulls us into unnecessary melodrama, there’s not much these two can do to retain that believability. The cast is also hurt by plot inconsistencies, such as when Margaret criticizes Henrietta for never writing from Harvard, even though earlier Gunderson’s employed a conceit specifically to dramatize an exchange of letters between them.
The best aspect of Silent Sky is the humor, the bulk of which emanates from Annie (Holland Renton) and especially Williamina (Brenda Kenworthy), Henrietta’s fellow computers. Most of Gunderson’s jokes ― of which there are many for a play you pretty much have file under “drama” ― work, and director Phyllis B. Gitlin has the entire cast hitting the right beats. Williamina gets most of the big laughs (although everyone gets a turn), and Kenworthy absolutely slays.
If you’re looking for great depth (and that’s certainly part of what Gunderson wants you to get), you may walk away from Silent Sky uninspired. But if you can be satisfied with a night of theater that’s a little food for thought and a lot of laughs, Silent Sky may be worth the price of admission. At the very least you’ll learn how one little, largely overlooked person permanently connected herself to us by helping us understand the universe in which we live.
Silent Sky at Long Beach Playhouse
Times: Fri–Sat 8:00 p.m., Sun 2:00 p.m. Sunday
The show runs through May 4
Cost: $14 to $24
Details: (562) 494-1014; LBplayhouse.org
Venue: Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach
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