- By gentleguide
- On Mon 27 may 2019
The year 1900 was a time of discovery. There were still parts of the world that had yet to be seen with human eyes. But other eyes were looking to the vastness of space, and the multitude of stars above. Silent Sky presents young Henrietta Leavitt as she joins a team of women working on cataloging the observations of scientist Charles Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory. As he scanned the skies, the women would record the magnitude and positions of the stars from photographic plates taken from the telescope. After all, in those days, women weren’t even allowed to touch the telescope, let alone actually see the stars!
But Leavitt and her friends didn’t just do copywork. As she managed the figures, she was able to note differences in stars as they moved through the sky, and discover patterns. With her math and science skills, she discovered a way to determine the actual distance from one star to another, and therefore from Earth to the stars. As she says in the play, “We can skip star to star across deepest space until we know... exactly where we are!”
Director Judy Hart fell in love with Silent Sky a few years ago, and has wanted to present this play ever since. “When Artistic Director John Viars asked if I'd be interested in directing it, I jumped at the chance even though I had to do some major life rearranging to make it happen. It's an honor to be asked and to work at the Playhouse.”
“Lauren Gunderson's script for Silent Sky is pure muscle. There is little fat on the bones of her text. All exposition is action. That said, this play covers a lot of time - 1900 to 1918 - plus a condensed version of a remarkable scientist's life in 62 pages. Gunderson distills the given circumstances of an American female scientist's role at the turn of the 20th Century into short exchanges that don't dwell on the absurdity of it but rather pushes through it to what matters most - the relationships.”
“Gunderson mixes three "real" characters who spend their time looking to the stars - Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming - with two constructed characters that keep our main character Henrietta firmly connected to the earth. Any person who is passionate about their work (whatever it might be) will empathize with the Henrietta's getting lost in her work. Henrietta has a sister who keeps her connected to her family and her circumstances of birth, and then the character of Peter plays a love interest and also the only male in the cast. He has the large role of representing the given circumstances of time and place.”
Shelby Jensen plays Henrietta Leavitt, from her arrival at Harvard until the end of her career many years later. “I was initially interested in Silent Sky simply because I knew it was a cast of mostly women. Better odds for casting, right? But then I read it and knew I had to be involved. The dialogue, the very human way that it deals with heartbreak and setbacks, all make it one of the best plays I've ever read. And like I said before, I think everyone, men and women alike, will be able to see themselves reflected in it. It's a play about stars, but it's really about passion.”
“I think that the issues presented in the play are very much still present, even if they're more subtle. Henrietta would be allowed to use the telescope today, but she might still have to work harder than her colleagues to ‘prove herself’ despite having similar qualifications. I really hope everyone in the audience sees a little bit of her in themselves. Henrietta is ambitious to a fault, but she's not afraid to ask for what she wants. That's pretty inspirational - and excellent to see in a female character.”
Leavitt had both social and physical obstacles to overcome. She dealt with hearing loss throughout her life (hence the “silent” part of the title Silent Sky). “This play is special,” continues Jensen. “The main character has a disability, but it's not her defining characteristic - or even a prominent one. Which I think is important to see. We're focusing on portraying the physicality of people from the time period and letting the dialogue do the rest. Judy, the director, has also challenged us to make changes to that physicality as we age.”
Hart wants to shine her own starlight on the story of Leavitt, and the forgotten history of so many who paved the way for our modern world. “My hope is that when people hear Hubble, they'll think of Leavitt. When people hear ‘turn of the 20th century’, they will think about a Renaissance. When they hear the word scientist - a woman's face might pop into their minds.”
“I hope they are moved to tears by the sheer majesty of space and the passion needed to solve the biggest questions. This story doesn't dwell on minutia, but rather paints a giant swath of possibility. I hope every person leaving the theatre takes a moment to scan through their lives to remember when they really wondered about something. When they didn't embrace someone else's opinion first - but really thought for themselves.”
“How far have we come, and how far can we go? Isn’t it all relative? We change and hear what we are open to. This play speaks to who I am. As I've aged, I've been thinking about my legacy. I'm right in that place now where I wonder if the production I'm working on now might be my last and if it is what do I want to put out into the world. I hope that I will be remembered as a tireless acting coach, helping actors find a way to say that pesky line that doesn't make any sense; as a tenacious woman who chose theatre as her raison d'etre; and a kind human being who knows that balance in life is everything.”
That sounds like a life lived in the stars, with feet firmly on the ground. Much like Henrietta Leavitt, surrounded by silence, with a passion for the universe.
Silent Sky is presented by the Des Moines Playhouse, opening on May 31 and running through June 16. Tickets are available in person at the Playhouse box office located at 831 42nd street, by calling 515-277-6261, or through the Des Moines Playhouse website.
Silent Sky Photos by Steve Gibbons, courtesy of the Des Moines Playhouse.
Judy Hart Photo by Randy Bretz, Lincoln Journal Star.