Gunderson opens the ‘Silent Sky’ at The Williamston
WILLIAMSTON, Mich.–What do you do when someone tries to hold you back from pursuing your passion? How do you pursue something forbidden to you for the most arbitrary of reasons, and reasons you cannot change?
Henrietta Leavitt was a brilliant woman with big questions. Some would say she was born in the wrong time, but the world needs pioneers and she turned the limitations others placed on her into opportunities that changed forever the way scientists, astronomers and everyone else look at the sky.
Because of her, we know where we are in the universe.
Her story, the story of a human computer at Harvard Observatory at the turn of the 20th century, is being told at Williamston Theatre by a troupe directed by Tony Caselli and a script written by Lauren Gunderson, one of the hottest new playwrights today.
Her play, Silent Sky is getting its Michigan premiere with the opening of The Williamston’s 13th season. The play opens with Henrietta asking big questions about where we are in the universe and expressing her frustration with what we don’t yet know.
Played by Katherine Banks, Henrietta arrives at Harvard expecting to be treated as what she is—an eager scholar with a passion for learning and discovery. Instead, she is told that she’s been hired to do math as part of the “real” astronomer’s “harem.” The women aren’t allowed to touch the telescopes. Instead, they are brought glass plates on which the male astronomers have taken pictures of the sky. They do the calculations and graphs to determine where the stars are, how they pulse, and how to categorize them.
They are forbidden from pursuing their own lines of study. That doesn’t, however, stop Henrietta.
Banks brings a joy and determination to the character of the young scientist; she embodies the needed passion and fervor. She makes clear the struggles Henrietta has and how life pulls her in different directions. She does a beautiful job from start to finish, giving the audience plenty of reason to invest in her journeys and empathize with her.
Joining her as fellow human computers are Sarab Kamoo as Annie Cannon and Karen Sheridan as Williamina Flemming, two women who also made incredible discoveries and contributed greatly to the field of astronomy.
Kamoo is a sharp, demanding woman—highly intelligent and one who has no patience at first for Henrietta’s wishes. She creates a fascinating Annie Cannon, the woman who developed the classification of stars and was a suffragette. Her Annie is strong, determined and knows what is at stake. A feminist, Annie doesn’t waste time whining about what they can’t have or can’t get.
Sheridan captures both the Scottish accent and the maternal nature of the senior astronomer, the first of the women to be hired into the job. She’s quick to laugh and creates a lovely balance to Kamoo’s sharper Annie. She was once the male scientist’s housekeeper and she still brings a bit of that character to her job, but without ever letting you forget she’s at least ten times smarter than any of the men who preceded her.
Together the three form an incredible bond and the actors give a beautiful chemistry among these women of science who broke barriers and changed forever what we know about the universe.
Michael Lopetrone, it seems, can do no wrong upon the Williamston stage. Every character he creates is magic—even one whose primary purpose is to embody the sexist, masculine viewpoint that these women had to fight. He’s at times condescending or paternal and at other times worshipful. It is to Lopetrone’s credit that his Peter Shaw is able to take a full journey in which he makes subtle changes back and forth, sometimes heartbreaking ones.
Finally, Annie Dilworth plays Henrietta’s sister, Margaret Leavitt, and in many ways she provides the part of the audience—someone not versed in astronomy so when key discoveries are made, her sister has to explain it to her in terms the audience can understand and not the technical terms that she would use for her colleagues. But Dilworth’s Margaret is more than just a device. Her loving humanity reminds us who Henrietta is and where she came from. Dilworth shows the other side of passion and the life that Henrietta turned her back on. She also has a lovely, sweet voice which she uses to sing hymns throughout the show while accompanying herself on piano.
It’s a beautiful, warm, and challenging show. It opens with Banks alone on stage. And in trademark Caselli direction, she makes great use of silence, of taking in the sky and getting the entire audience to breathe with her before she begins her opening monologue—a monologue so poetically and beautifully delivered that the audience began applauding as soon as the lights began to change.
Throughout the show, Caselli continues to orchestrate these moments of high-stakes emotion that constantly increase the audience’s investment in the show.
The beauty of the show doesn’t end with the acting and directing. Silent Sky puts heavy demands on the technical staff and it is clear they bring as much passion to their job as the story’s protagonists do to their work.
Bradley Branam designed the projections, a constantly changing night sky where the stars, which were the constant obsession of the characters, could be displayed, as could the forbidden telescope, windows, ocean liners or whatever else the story demanded. It also helped set us in time and place.
Michelle Raymond clearly did her research and brought to the stage period props that included the scientific tools used in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There are the glass plates, the special trays on which the plates were put and the “spankers” that helped them graph the stars. Even the boxes holding the glass plates were designed with meticulous attention to detail. She also did a wonderful job with Henrietta’s hearing aid, making it authentic to the period.
Karen Kangas-Preston created beautiful period costumes that clearly define the women as professionals while staying true to the era. The hem line changed slightly with the advancing calendar, but the costumes are true to the characters of the actors wearing them.
Daniel Huston’s lights play a key role in the story, and it work in tandem with the projections to help move the story through time and place.
It’s easy to see why Gunderson is so popular. Silent Sky is vastly different from The Taming, her show which opened Williamston’s 12th season. However, it is still a show filled with strong women and a compelling story. The language is beautiful, the themes eloquent, and she translates difficult, sometimes obscure concepts into easy-to-understand explanations. She makes math fascinating.
Gunderson does depart from historical fact, as all playwrights must do, for dramatic purposes. In reality, Henrietta was much older and Annie was also deaf. Gunderson made some choices that seem a little like a cheat so the story would be more palatable to a modern audience—Henrietta’s youth, the insertion of a love story, and making the scientist an agnostic when in fact she was very active in her church and devoutly religious. One almost wonders if it might not have been braver to stick to the facts in those cases—to have an older heroine, to skip the trope of a love story, explore the paradox of the woman who looked at all of the heavens and discovered there were galaxies beyond what we previously knew, yet still believed that there might be a heaven with a god somewhere out there.
But that is merely a what-if and the story Gunderson tells is not a PBS biography. It is Gunderson’s story of women who would not be kept earth-bound, demanded equal access to the skies and showed that nothing would limit them. It’s a story that is uplifting and beautiful, especially in these days where women still struggle to be heard.