Simply put, live theater does not get much better than "Silent Sky," the current stunningly moving production by Flat Earth Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown. The writing by playwright Lauren Gunderson is flawless and poetic, and her elegance of style is matched by the superb cast of five actors directed with precision and grace by Dori A. Robinson.
The action of the play centers on three historical figures, Henrietta Leavitt, Williamina Fleming, and Annie Jump Cannon. These three pioneers of astronomy worked at the turn of the last century as "computers" at the Harvard College Observatory, home of the nation's largest telescope from 1847-1867. These women, initially relegated to the tedious work of mapping stars from the photographic plates taken by the telescope, broke through barriers of sexism and academic elitism to suggest new ways of cataloguing the stars. Ms. Cannon invented a way of categorizing stars by their spectra and temperature. Ms. Leavitt arrived at a way of timing the cycle of pulsating stars that led to a way of measuring distances between stars and galaxies.
The play is filled with esoteric and arcane astronomical information. In the hands of a less artistic playwright, it could have proved to be a dry evening of theater. But given Ms. Gunderson's artistry, there was not a dry eye in the audience by the end of the play. She managed to humanize the ideas and the characters, and to make us care about all of it. The playwright has added the characters of
Henri's sister, Margaret, and her boss and sometime love interest, Peter Shaw.
The themes of the play are manifold and challenging. Director Robinson states the case beautifully in her program notes: "Gunderson calls it a conversation between opposites:science and religion, life and legacy, men and women, hearing and deafness, fantasy and reality, memories and historical facts."
Part of the poignancy of this play is that Henri Leavitt is battling time. Her body is gravely ill as her mind is at its peak of creativity and discovery. She fights to hang on until she can prove that her theories are correct, and she can be recognized as a true astronomer, not just a "female computer." The themes of this play serve as a wonderful companion piece to the recent Academy Award winning film, "Hidden Figures," in which three Black women break barriers at NASA as "Computers."
In addition to the extraordinary writing by Ms. Gunderson, the cast of five are each memorable in their roles:
- Erin Eva Butcher is luminous as Henri, a brilliant Radcliffe graduate who chooses to leave her Midwestern family to return to Cambridge and make her way in the world of science. It is a long slog, but she is wonderfully supported by her two female colleagues, who are very different in temperament and personality.
- Brenna Sweet is solid as Henri's sister, who stays behind to care for her father and to raise a son. She eventually follows Henri to Cambridge and cares for her in her illness.
- Marcus Hunter has a difficult row to hoe as the sole male in this cast of powerful women. He brilliantly walks a fine line between being the arrogant and chauvinistic academic on the one hand, but charming enough to make us believe that Henri would fall in love with him, on the other hand.
- Juliet Bowler is a total delight as Williamina Fleming, who started her Boston career as a housemaid from Ireland, but was brought onto the staff of the observatory by her boss. She peppers her conversation with wise and often acerbic comments and withering glances.
- Cassandra Meyer is perfect as the straight-laced person who keeps order, structure, and protocol keenly observed in the observatory. But she is also passionate about women's rights, and becomes a marching Suffragette.
Debra Reich has designed a gorgeous set that sparkles and pulsates in harmony with the stars that the women are observing and trying to understand. Costume Design by Cara Chiaramonte places the characters in the correct historical period. Lighting Designer PJ Strachman dazzles with a complex universe of heavenly bodies, and Sound Designer Kyle Lampe punctuate the action with a soundscape that fits the themes of the play.
I often judge an outstanding evening at the theater if, during the course of the play, I have experienced chills and tears. This play hit the jackpot. I felt deeply. I thought deeply. I learned deeply. It was one of the most satisfying theater-going experiences of this current season led by one of the best ensemble casts. Bravo!
Audience response has been so overwhelming that an additional Saturday 2:00 matinee has been added for this final weekend. The play must close on the 25th, so act now to get one or more of the remaining tickets. They are not as plentiful as the stars in the sky!
Flat Earth Theatre Website