Silent Sky shines a light on female scientists
You don’t need a degree in astronomy to enjoy Ford Theatre’s production of Silent Sky. All you need is your humanity.
Silent Sky, written in 2015 by Lauren Gunderson, the most produced American playwright, showcases the life of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a partially deaf astronomer from the 19th century. This is a story not about science but about the obstacles and sacrifices people, particularly women, face in pursuit of their passions.
The play has traveled across the United States, from Georgia to Illinois to California, where it has been well received due to the universality of gender equality, according to Gunderson’s 2016 interview with Austin Playhouse in Texas.
“Women aren’t asking for special treatment; we are showing how special we already are and always have been,” Gunderson said.
Enlacing science with humor
Laura C. Harris, who plays Leavitt, makes being a “nerd” look like fun. Geniuses can have a sense of humor, which she demonstrates in an early scene of her childhood in small-town Wisconsin, pitching a fit about going to church, just like any other child.
Leavitt’s energy is contagious when she receives an invitation from the Harvard Observatory to become a volunteer assistant for astronomer Edward C. Pickering. Three years after graduating from Radcliffe College, she declares, “I need to start my life — with Daddy’s money.”
Leavitt takes the cash saved for her dowry and moves permanently to Boston, where she finds two “computers” — as in, women who compute scientific information for men who take the credit. Anyone who has watched “Hidden Figures,” a 2016 film about the three African American women behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn, is already familiar with this reality. Women have been hiding in the shadows of artistic and academic achievement for centuries.
Like “Hidden Figures,” Silent Sky also has a group of highly intelligent women. Williamina Fleming (Holly Twyford), a Scottish woman who once worked as a maid for Pickering, and Annie Cannon (Nora Achrati), a suffragette who even takes to wearing pants at the end of the play, become a support network for Leavitt. They also have fun, sassing Pickering’s assistant, Peter Shaw (Jonathan David Martin), as he consistently visits their office to see Leavitt, with whom he has become infatuated.
But Leavitt is not content being a “computer.” She doesn’t want to just gather data, she proclaims, “I have questions. I have fundamental problems with the state of human knowledge!”
So, with the support of Cannon and Fleming, Leavitt stays night after night in the office, tracking stars with blinking lights, also known as Cepheids. During this time, she finds 2,400 Cepheids, previously believed to be rare.
As she becomes absorbed in her work, Leavitt neglects her family in Wisconsin, sending only occasional letters to her sister, Margaret (Emily Kester), who has been begging her to come home. Years pass in Leavitt’s thirst for understanding.
Leavitt only stops when she receives a letter from Margaret with news of their father’s stroke. She leaves Boston, and love interest Shaw, with pictures of her Cepheids in tow to help her sister take care of the family. She doesn’t return to the observatory for three years.
Wisconsin, however, is where Leavitt finds her legacy. Finally, after years of gathering data, she figures out that the pulsating stars have a pattern, and that pattern can be used to determine how far away the star is from earth. Her discovery will allow another astronomer, Edwin Hubble, in 1924 to prove that there are other galaxies in the universe, not just ours.
With each idea that pops into Leavitt’s head, a light bulb hanging from above illuminates. Soon, the whole stage is a sea of lights, thanks to the realization of lighting designer Rui Rita’s vision. Even though the play is set on earth, space never seems too far away.
In her Ford Theatre debut, director Seema Sueko takes these bright, uplifting moments and infuses them with humor, making this play accessible to everyone, even self-proclaimed science haters. It’s rare for two minutes to pass without a break for laughter from the audience.
With an intimate cast of five, Silent Sky demonstrates that dreams are attainable, even if they seem out of this world, and that recognition does come to those who deserve it.
In the play’s final scene, Leavitt addresses the audience from the afterlife. She was sent a letter from Sweden about a Nobel Prize nomination, received too late — several years after her death. Today, even without a prize to her name, she is celebrated as one of the greatest astronomers. With the help of this play, Leavitt’s star will never dim.
Silent Sky runs at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW, Washington, D.C. until February 23. Tickets cost $36 to $70; duration is two hours with an intermission. For more information, visit fords.org.