Theatre Review: ‘Silent Sky’ at Theatrical Outfit

Elizabeth Diane Wells in Silent Sky at Theatrical Outfit. (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)
Elizabeth Diane Wells in Silent Sky at Theatrical Outfit. (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)

By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

Theatrical Outfit’s new production of Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky,” directed by David Crowe, will run through March 8. Such is the buzz surrounding this play that it has already been extended a week.

There are several reasons: Ms. Gunderson is an Atlanta-born playwright (now based in San Francisco) and has become quite prominent; the play has a top-notch cast and director; it’s a startling, entertaining true story of a brilliant, history-making woman—hitherto unknown to many of us.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt (Elizabeth Diane Wells) was an astronomer when women could not be astronomers, or taken seriously as such. Born in 1868 in Massachusetts (the play first locates the family in rural Wisconsin—did they move?), Henrietta has a minister father and a devoted sister named Margaret (Cynthia Barrett, in a lovely performance), in whom Henrietta confides her plan: She will leave home and begin work at the Harvard College Observatory.

At this time (1893) and in the early 1900’s, women were not allowed to operate telescopes. Instead, Henrietta is put to work as a “computer,” examining photographic plates to measure and catalogue the brightness of stars—clerical work, you might say.

In this endeavor she has two colleagues, a pair of no-nonsense women both formidable and funny. They are Annie Cannon (Carolyn Cook) and Williamina Fleming (Deadra Moore). Both Ms. Cook and Ms. Moore are wonderful, giving performances full of grace, wit, and power. Both Annie and Williamina sense something extraordinary about Henrietta. Her perception, restless mind, and intense work ethic do not go unnoticed.

There is one gentleman in the play named Peter Shaw (Brandon Partrick), an apprentice to the head astronomer. Peter and Henrietta, after a rough start, soon warm to each other, and a careful romance, we’ll call it, begins to bloom. Mr. Partrick’s performance is quite dashing and serious—just what the part calls for.

Henrietta Leavitt does nothing less than create a new cosmology. She would have understood the 13th Century metaphysical teacher Meister Eckhart when he said, “Time is what keeps the light from reaching us.” She found the key for finding distance to the stars; it was her discovery that allowed astronomers to measure the distance between the earth and far flung galaxies.

This is a thrilling moment in the play. But please do not think that “Silent Sky” is all starchily scientific; quite the reverse. Its characters are intensely human and likable. Ms. Wells’ performance as Henrietta has genuine charm, intelligence, and strength. Ms. Gunderson writes dialogue that is fluid, witty, and often moving. As a playwright she is a master craftman, at a very young age (33 to be exact).

Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have created a set with (dare I say it?) stairways to heaven. They are ceaselessly creative. And I love Elizabeth Rasmusson’s beautiful costumes.

Director David Crowe’s work here is exemplary: His concept, his pace, his interpretation all bespeak a very large talent; he’s at the forefront of Atlanta directors. I’m still marveling at his triumphant “Elephant Man” at Georgia Ensemble last fall.

“Silent Sky” reminds me of an excellent Masterpiece Theatre episode. The stars have aligned (no pun intended) to give Theatrical Outfit a solid, authentic hit.

For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.

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