Encore Michigan

‘Silent Sky’ at UDM explores how a woman changed the world

Review October 23, 2019 Tanya Gazdik

DETROIT — Sometimes it takes a little bit of fictionalized history to remind viewers how far women have come in the last century.

While some of the current headlines are troubling (a major U.S. accounting firm is under fire for holding a training seminar where women were told how to dress and act around men), at least women are being hired alongside men for similar jobs.  Women also no longer have to choose between having a family or having a career, even though it’s really exhausting to try to “have it all.”

Back when 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt was entering the workforce, women were segregated to a room at the Harvard Observatory to conduct tedious data recording. They were called “computers.” Let’s remember that at that time, they could not vote or even express an original idea in front of men.

Despite not being allowed to touch a telescope, Leavitt and her colleagues made ground-breaking discoveries about the universe. Such is the premise of Silent Sky, which is entering its second and final weekend at the Detroit Mercy Theatre Company, and performed at the Marlene Boll Theatre inside the downtown YMCA at 1401 Broadway.

The nearly all-woman cast shows how the powerful bonds of sisterhood, both blood and otherwise, get women through trying times. Some things haven’t changed. Collectively, they were stronger than the sum of their parts.

The two-act play is written by Lauren Gunderson, the most produced playwright in America of 2017, and directed by Sarah Hawkins, who received her MFA from Wayne State University and has directed locally at Open Book Theatre, Outvisible Theatre, Tipping Point Theatre, Warren Civic Theatre, Motor City Youth Theatre and Matrix Theatre Company.

The show production is also being entered into the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival competition. 

Amelia Rose Glenn is Henrietta Leavitt, the bold astronomer who dares to leave her Wisconsin family and homestead behind to take a job in Boston at Harvard. Glenn does a superb job of capturing Leavitt’s unapologetic and determined personality. Her acting is top-rate, though in a few instances her projection fell off and bits of her dialogue were difficult to hear. This is a play where you don’t want to miss one of Gunderson’s words.

Elise Pannemann is convincing as Margaret Leavitt, Henrietta’s sister who faithfully keeps the home fires burning, even if it means writing occasional letter on behalf of Henrietta to keep their father content that his daughters are living in good form. Ultimately, she supports her sister through thick and thin, even while going through her own trials.

James Hardy plays Peter Shaw, the lone male character. Hardy perfectly captures the quirky and likable scientist, who struggles to both feel and convey his emotions. Nina Carlson is absolutely delightful as Annie Cannon, one of Henrietta’s fellow “computers” who initially comes off as rigid, but has a sweet side.

Krista Schafer Ewbank, the professional cast member, is Williamina Fleming, another “computer” who defers to alpha Annie, despite her seniority. Her easy-going character is the bridge between the other characters. She is the glue that holds the ensemble together.

Costumes by Mary Elizabeth Valesano are period perfect. The transition from dresses to the first pants worn by women is effective in visually showing the changing times

The production is offering a post-production talk on Oct. 25 themed “Women of the Universe” where professors from Detroit Mercy’s College of Engineering & Science will deepen the audience’s understanding of Henrietta Leavitt’s contributions.

The production is interesting to history and science buffs, along with anyone curious about women’s role in science through he ages. It shows the human side of history, and the sacrifices that were made by women who clearly had to choose between families and careers. We’ve come a long way, which makes it even more important to never forget the past.

Week of 11/18/2019

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