What: Play by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Anne Justine D'Zmura, presented by South Coast Repertory
Where: South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa,
When: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2:30 p.m. through May 1.
Information: (714) 708-5555, www.scr.org
Two and one-half stars
By John Farrell
“Silent Sky” is a great idea for a play: tell the story of a genuine astronomical pioneer who, in spite of sexism and a job that paid little for an impossibly big amount of work, discovered one of the vital facts of the universe by insight and sheer persistence.
South Coast Repertory certainly felt that way when they commissioned Lauren Gunderson to write “Silent Sky” for them, the second play Gunderson has written under commission for the playhouse. It is an exciting subject. Henrietta Leavitt, the play's central character, worked for more than a decade as one of Harvard University's “computers” (back when that meant somebody doing the work by hand) and discovered, through the data she personally mustered and cataloged, the relative luminosity of Cepheid variable stars, the so-called “standard candles”that allowed the universe to be mapped and Edwin Hubble (after whom the Hubble Telescope is named) to discover and catalog thousands of galaxies outside our own Milky Way.
The problem is, the explanation above is more detailed than any in the play, and the real story, of more than fifteen years of Leavitt's arduous work, is hidden in the background of a story that tells more about Levitt's love life than her intellectual one, leaves her inspiration largely to be guessed at and even lets the fatal cancer that took her early in life be no more than a simple pain in her stomach mentioned mildly in passing.
Perhaps it was playwright Gunderson's intention to focus on Leavitt's life instead of her work, but even that is often done in shorthand and without much notice: Leavitt worked for 16 years at Harvard before her ground-breaking work was published and no explanation is given for that publication. Meanwhile she has aged 16 years without much personal change in appearance (though one of her colleague's finally appears in a modern for 1910 pants suit.
Monette Magrath makes Henrietta a woman not really of the current (1890s) world (though her Phi Beta Kappa award and graduation from Radcliffe would suggest some worldly experience) and her fascination with the sky, and the telescopic pictures of the sky she works with are feebly suggested by the staging, which makes her offices no more than a desk and a chair, her home a sofa, and everything moveable and changeable. Better we should see her in the cluttered Victorian world that was her real life, and that designer John Iacovelli should have provided.
Magrath is supported by Amelia White as Williamina Fleming, a Scottish immigrant promoted to photographic work, and Colette Kilroy as Annie Cannon. Together the three of them work to catalog the sky, under the leadership of the never-seen Professor Pickering, who hired only women for the work and might have been an interesting character himself, if he was ever allowed on stage. Nick Toren is Peter Shaw, Leavitt's love interest from a distance and Erin Cottrell is Henrietta's sister Margaret Leavitt whose life, involving the birth of several children, is almost the only indicator we get of time passing.
Director Anne Justine D'Zmura stages all the action on a flat stage where the sky is viewed through the half-opened dome of a telescope, with the desks and furniture and rail of an ocean liner the only things on stage. They move easily from scene to scene and, with a bit more clutter, might tell more of the story. She makes it all work seamlessly but though some in the audience seemed to know what was going on, others were asking for explanations afterwards. Yes, Leavitt made an important, even crucial discovery, but perhaps there was more to it than the largely empty and blank scenery suggested.
“Silent Sky” tells an important story of science (and even a little feminism) but it does so with little of the anguish and terrible load of work Leavitt undertook to achieve her discovery. She deserves better.