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Alive in the cosmos

‘Silent Sky’ is the ‘Hidden Figures’ of astronomy

By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review

On the heels of its magnificent “Shadowlands,” Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado continues its string of extraordinary productions with the San Diego premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky,” an absolutely delectable, mind-expanding examination of the early days of women in astronomy.

(l to r) Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Cynthia Gerber and Rachael VanWormer (Photo by Ken Jacques)

The most-produced living American playwright in 2016, Gunderson has several works seen or about to be seen in San Diego theaters, among them “Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet …” at New Village Arts last season, and “The Revolutionists” to be seen at Moxie Theatre in May.

Director Robert Smyth (Lamb’s producing artistic director) was shown “Silent Sky” by a colleague and immediately applied for the rights to produce it locally, which he does in gorgeous fashion with scenic design by Sean Fanning and a cast of five (four of them women).

Brian Mackey and Rachael VonWormer in “Silent Sky” (Photo by Ken Jacques)

Rachel VanWormer’s endearing performance as pioneering woman astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921) is stunning and her character’s unconsummated love affair with a socially gauche astronomer named Peter Shaw, played by her real-life husband Brian Mackey, is delicious fun.

Add to this the two other women “computers” (as they were called) in the astronomy lab — Annie Canon (Cynthia Gerber) and Williamina Fleming (Deborah Gilmour Smyth) — a host of unseen but fully imagined additional characters, and Henrietta’s musical, married sister Margaret (Catie Grady), and this audience member found herself royally entertained, entranced, and wanting more — more of this play, its characters and more of Gunderson.

When the historical Henrietta, a stargazer from childhood, went to work at Harvard (in 1893 at age 25) scientists believed the Milky Way was the extent of the universe, with earth most importantly its center.

In her job, which she spent her dowry to effect, Henrietta began cataloguing the stars from photographic plates given her and the other computers by male astronomers, who were the only ones allowed to use Harvard’s Great Refractor Telescope, which was the largest in the U. S. for more than 20 years.

Her discoveries gave scientists the means to measure the distance between stars and thus the size of the expanding universe. Don’t worry about the science: Lamb’s provides a helpful glossary.

Robert Smyth illuminates Gunderson’s text with keen direction of his assemblage. Jemima Dutra’s period costumes, which include suffragette “bloomers,” are wondrous, and Nathan Peirson’s lighting provides exactly what’s needed expansively.

Deborah Gilmour Smyth also provides sound design and original music. Gunderson, who is based in the Bay Area, has a talent for mingling metaphors and revelations about scientific, poetic, human and even religious matters, sending shivers of recognition up one’s spine.

Her language is glorious, her insight keen, and the play’s culmination, touching and inspired. It makes one glad to be alive in the cosmos.

—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at charb81@gmail.com.

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