AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Presented by TheatreWorks
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro St., Mountain View, CA / (650) 463-1960

Reviewed by Judy Richter

A groundbreaking discovery by a female astronomer a century ago paved the way for much of what is known about the universe today. This true story is compellingly told in Lauren Gunderson's "Silent Sky," presented by TheatreWorks.

A Midwesterner and honors graduate of Radcliffe, Henrietta Leavitt (Elena Wright) went to work for free and later was paid $10.50 a week as a "computer" at the Harvard Observatory in 1900. She and two other women, Annie Cannon (Sarah Dacey Charles) and Williamina Fleming (Lynne Soffer), were supposed to catalog and measure stars' brightness. They did so by studying glass photographic plates from the observatory's telescope. Over time, Henrietta figured out a way to measure the size of stars and the distance between them. This discovery opened the door for other astronomers' discoveries to result in greater understanding of the universe.

Her pioneering work came despite the lack of respect given to women in the workplace at that time. She and her two colleagues couldn't do the more advanced work that men did, according to their supervisor, Peter Shaw (Matt Citron), who called them girls. He reported to the observatory's director, Edward Charles Pickering, who doesn't appear in the play. They were known as Pickering's harem.

Playwright Gunderson inserts an element of romance with a growing attraction between Henrietta and Peter. However, it's interrupted when Henrietta must return home to help her married sister, Margaret (Jennifer Le Blanc), after the illness and subsequent death of their father.

As directed by Meredith McDonough, the characters come to vibrant life. Wright's luminous Henrietta is a determined, dedicated woman who overcomes obstacles that would have discouraged most people, let alone women at that time. As Henrietta's sister, Le Blanc offers a loving contrast as a woman who chooses marriage and family over a career.

Charles's Annie Cannon comes across at first as stern and rigid, but she gradually warms to Henrietta and becomes a caring friend. She also becomes involved in the women's suffrage movement and shows up in pants when the play ends in 1920.

As Williamina Fleming, Soffer is friendly, down to earth and motherly. Citron as Peter Shaw, the play's only man, is believable as his character undergoes changes in his attitude toward Henrietta.

Henrietta died of cancer in 1921 at the age of 53. Rather than a sad deathbed scene, though, the uplifting conclusion focuses on the outcomes of her discoveries.

This production benefits from outstanding design elements, starting with Annie Smart's set, which features a glass-domed observatory that easily becomes other sites with the addition of a few set pieces. Paul Toben's lighting not only establishes mood but also becomes star-studded over time.

Carefully tailored costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt reflect each character's personality as well as changing fashions. Music by Jenny Giering complements the drama, aided by Jeff Mockus's sound.

"Silent Sky" is a fascinating tribute to a woman who received little recognition during her lifetime and who probably isn't widely known to the general public today.

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