When you look up at the night sky, what do you see? An ethereal mystery or an exciting galaxy waiting to be discovered? The play Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson onstage at N.C. Stage Company through Sunday, April 7, embraces the latter.
We follow the fictionalized biography of Henrietta Leavitt (played by Rebecca Morris). Henrietta had a burning passion for something more profound than a simple and religious home life with her sister Margaret (Trinity Smith Keel). Fascinated by astronomy, she eschews a life of security after accepting a job at the Harvard College Observatory. Upon arriving, she finds the position not as demanding as she had hoped: She serves as something of a human computer overseen by Peter Shaw (Willie Repoley).
However, Henrietta suspects a new series of stars she has been meticulously logging holds a greater key to the understanding of distance, time and luminosity. If she is right, such a breakthrough could lead to possible evidence of other galaxies.
At the turn of the last century, science was very much a man’s world. Women were not even allowed near a telescope. Silent Sky reminds us that we should be valued for our individual attributes and not limited by gender. The play also sheds light on harassment and dehumanization in the workplace, such as when those in authority diminish those who work for them and take credit for the ideas of those with less power.
There could be no one better for the role of Henrietta than Morris. Not only does she look the part, she exudes a strength and passion that moves us. Through the performance, we realize Henrietta dedicated her life to this discovery, yet did not receive the acclaim she deserved in her lifetime. She’s a testament to all of us: What will we be leaving behind when we’re long gone?
The cast is outstanding. A chameleonic Callan White (as Williamina Fleming) and an appropriately subdued Katie Langwell (as Annie Jump Cannon) both portray characters who aided the forward motion of astronomy. White also nails a challenging Scottish accent.
Smith Keel elevates the role of the forgotten sister Margaret. She offers up a perfectly levelheaded, slightly rigid interpretation. Thankfully, Smith Keel brings out more than what is on the page. Through her character, we witness the parallels of religion and science. The fact that the script doesn’t illuminate the long-standing debate on an emotional level is its only downfall.
The charming Repoley is masterful in this production. Choosing not to make his character an overt villain from the start was a wise decision. Rather, we feel that the segregation of women was horrifically routine. Repoley’s awkward Shaw is funny and memorable.
Hans Meyer’s direction is stripped-down and crisp, which is immensely satisfying. Only the play’s end should be questioned. Rather than using astronomical projections, the production could have stayed simplistic throughout with greater impact. Regardless, Meyer has us employing our imaginations in the blocking and the set. It’s a great production.
Silent Sky helps us fantasize about a perfect galaxy where everyone has equal opportunities. We must continue to hope that somewhere out there is a place where we’re all allowed to shine in our own way and be recognized for our own contributions.
WHAT: Silent Sky
WHERE: N.C. Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane, ncstage.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, April 7. Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. $10-$34