Written by award-winning playwright Lauren Gunderson, SILENT SKY debuted in 2011 at the South Coast Repertory. Based on a true story, SILENT SKY tells the tale of Henrietta Leavitt, a woman whose passion for the stars led her to flaunt society’s expectations and, in a word, march to her own drummer. In her day, an innovative astronomer who wasn’t permitted to look at the heavens through a telescope. In today’s world, she might have been a reluctant but effective leader. This is a woman who would have been nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1927 – had she not died six years earlier at the age of 53 from stomach cancer.
Set in the early 1900s, Henrietta (Abigail Stewart) is not your average young lady of the era who was looking forward to an appropriate marriage and lots of little additions to the family. Henrietta definitely had dreams which did not entail the things her peers longed for. Despite her hearing deficits, Henrietta pursued a B.A. at a time when females were forced to attend “special” schools just for her gender. She also just happened to attend a school which would in the future become Radcliffe College. All the while leaving her sister Margaret (Tammy Mora) behind to take care of their preacher dad and the family home in Wisconsin.
Degree in hand, Henrietta eagerly answered the call of Dr. Pickering, head astronomer at Harvard University – even if it meant using her dowry money to survive. Only to be dubbed “a computer” and relegated to a small airless office to stare all day at photos taken from the telescope she longed to use. She became part of “the harem,” a group of three women who analyzed these photos for the men in the department. But in Annie Cannon (Marie Broderick) and Williamina Fleming (Amy Tolsky) she found her soulmates, three women who lived for their work and deviously hid their brilliance from the male-dominated astronomy world. And were also pretty clever, witty, and forward-thinking for their time.
Enter Peter Shaw (Dalen Carlson), a member of the male astronomy contingent and almost immediately charmed by the daring Ms. Leavitt. Perhaps a complication for Henri – or perhaps someone who will draw her from her solitary cocoon. Soon Henri finds herself pulled in conflicting directions – from an avid researcher and theoretician to a love-struck young adult to a loving and obedient daughter and sister who must answer the family’s call in a time of crisis.
Helmed by skilled director Ann Hearn Tobolowsky, SILENT SKY gently recounts the tale of women who weren’t ready to accept their “place” in society. What could easily have become a dry intellectual foray shines with personal struggles and emotional challenges. Tobolowsky is ably assisted by an excellent cast, with special kudos to Amy Tolsky, who breathes life into her character, an astute and crafty scientist who somehow manages to juggle her femininity and her genius at the same time. Silent Sky is fortunate to have a strong production team, including set designer Jeff G. Rack, costume designer Michele Young, lighting designer Derrick McDaniel, sound designer Nick Foran, and projection designer Fritz Davis. SILENT SKY is a fascinating peek at the turn-of-the-century life of a mathematician and astronomer who happened to be female and – against all odds – made a significant mark on the world of science.
SILENT SKY runs through April 17, 2022, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Theatre 40 is located in the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 S. Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. Tickets are $35. For information and reservations, call 310-364-0535 or go online.