The Knowing of the Not Knowing
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
Presented by CAT – Chamberlayne Actor’s Theatre
At: The Stage Door Space at Atlee High School, 9414 Atlee Station Rd, Mechanicsville 23116
Performances: March 24 – April 2, 2023
Ticket Prices: $24.00 General Admission. $22.00 Seniors
There are many things about Lauren Gunderson’s 2015 play SILENT SKY that are deeply satisfying. The work of historical fiction about early twentieth century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt achieves and maintains a balance between relaying a story of scientific facts and breakthroughs and exploring the development of relationships among family and friends.
A.G. Sweany and Amber James, in the roles of sisters Henrietta and Margaret Leavitt, immediately establish a relationship that is both affectionate and contrary – just what one might expect to see among siblings. They even look like they could be related. In SILENT SKY we first meet them outside their father’s church on a Sunday morning. Margaret is preparing to play the music for the hymns, but Henrietta is seeking her help to explain to their widowed father that she is about to leave home to embark on a career in science – astronomy, to be precise. Margaret is the sister who stays home, marries, and takes care of their aging father, but she is not lacking in talent and accomplishment. Besides playing the piano for church, she writes a symphony, and is not averse to breaking into song at the drop of a hat – as if she were part of a musical. But Margaret, it seems, is fictional. Perhaps she represents the non-scientific side of Henrietta – the side that balances science and religion, one of the play’s subplots. Henrietta and Margaret at one point have an interesting discussion of the meaning of the scientific heaven versus the spiritual heaven.
I enjoyed watching Sharon Hollands and Sandra Clayton, as fellow “computers” Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon warm to the presence of the new girl in the office, eventually forming an unbreakable bond of friendship. It was especially fun to watch Williamina’s tough Scottish exterior melt. Then there was Colton Needles as Peter Shaw, the women’s supervisor and Henrietta’s love interest. At the start of Act 2, he appears wearing a wedding ring, but doesn’t have the gumption to tell Henrietta he has moved on during her sabbatical. He was the weakest link in this well-cast ensemble, but this is a story of women’s empowerment. Peter is also fictitious.
But both Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon were real women, astronomers at Harvard at a time when women were paid just a fraction of what their male peers made, while their accomplishments were dismissed or credit given to their male colleagues. Fleming, Cannon, and Leavitt were employed as “human computers,” a concept I was first introduced with the 2016 film Hidden Figures that documented the life and work of a team of African-American “computers” (i.e., mathematicians) who worked for NASA during the early years of the US space program. In SILENT SKY we learn how Leavitt and her colleagues studied the stars – while denied the use of the powerful telescope to which their male counterparts had access. Leavitt eventually made a breakthrough- the cepheid variable period-luminosity relationship – that enabled astronomers to measure the distance between stars and determine the size of the galaxy and the existence of unknown galaxies. Her work laid the foundation for the Hubble telescope and subsequent astronomical discoveries.
Among Gunderson’s achievements, the author made scientific discovery entertaining and understandable, and managed to pair it with a little romance, a little music, and a fashion show of professional women’s attire from the end of the 19th century through the suffragette movement of the 1920s. Cannon, a suffragist and real “patriot” spoke of joining a march on Washington – drawing comparisons with the contemporary meaning of the word “patriot” and the results of recent activities in Washington. Gunderson achieved all of this without being condescending. For another, perhaps final, example, when Henrietta finally opens a gift sent by her late father, she unwraps a Walt Whitman poem about an astronomer that proves to be both sentimental and prophetic.
There were a few things that raised questions. Henrietta’s hearing aide seemed amazingly modern and surprisingly compact. I did a little (very little) digging around and came away without drawing any conclusions as to whether the hearing aid used in this production was accurately depicted or, like its wearer, way ahead of its time. At one point in the play, Margaret was playing the piano while talking with her sister. She turned to face Henrietta, taking her hands away from the keyboard, but the (recorded) score kept playing. There were few costume changes during the first act, even when scenes and locations changed, but the period dresses were quite lovely, and when Annie Jump Cannon appeared in trousers in one of the closing scenes Margaret’s reaction was worth the wait. SILENT SKY, like Henrietta Leavitt, set and maintained standards in a way that was unfamiliar, a bit rough around the edges, yet undoubtedly of value.
“I thought to write a symphony you had to be European and angry.” – Henrietta
“Stars are tonal – like music.” Henrietta
“All I have is time, and all I haven’t is time.” – Henrietta
“I choose to measure you in light.” – Annie
“How do you celebrate measuring the universe?” – Margaret
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Written by Lauren Gunderson
Music by Jenny Giering
Directed by Charles A. Wax
A.G. Sweany as Henrietta Leavitt
Amber James as Margaret Leavitt
Colton Needles as Peter Shaw
Sharon Hollands as Williamina Fleming
Sandra Clayton as Annie Jump Cannon
Creative Design Team
Director – Charles A. Wax
Stage Manager – Joey Bishop
Costume Design – Becky Jones
Assistant Costume Design – Kristen Blair
Lighting & Projection Design – Jason Lucas
Set Design – Scott Bergman
Sound Design – Charles A. Wax
Student Designers – Parish Lewis & Pippin Sparrow
March 24 – 26
March 31 – April 2
Ticket prices: $24.00 General Admission, $22.00 Seniors.
The play runs about 2 hours with 1 intermission
Photo Credits: Daryll Morgan Studios
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