Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's reviews of Spring Awakening, The Merry Wives of Windsor and A Thousand Splendid Suns
Lauren Gunderson's play is literate and funny, and director Seema Sueko ably guides her five actors to the truth and humor in their characters. The evocative set by Milagros Ponce de León and Rui Rita's lighting design beautifully set the scene with a glowing sky backdrop and a field of clear lightbulbs suspended on cords, representing the stars.
Henrietta Leavitt loved studying the stars, but when she came to the Harvard Observatory she discovered that she would not be permitted to use the telescope. She became a human "computer" to analyze stars from photographic plates taken by the male astronomers, then comparing them to existing star charts; these workers were all women, known to the male staff as "Pickering's Harem" in honor of the director of the observatory.
Harris gives a radiant performance as Gunderson depicts the several contexts of Henrietta's life. She leaves her father, a minister, and her sister Margaret (Emily Kester) in Wisconsin to achieve her dream at Harvard, but never breaks her ties with them; if an emergency arises at home, she can work remotely because the observatory can send her the glass plates to analyze. Interestingly, Henrietta achieves her breakthrougha correlation between the brightness of a variable star and the time it takes for the star to shift from bright to dimwhen she compares the pattern of stars to the piano music her sister composes.
The other computers, Williamina Fleming (Holly Twyford) and Annie Cannon (Nora Achrati), are forthright in both their devotion to science and their sense that "we are cleaning up the universe for the men"; their interplay, with each other and with Henrietta, is the highlight of the performance. Peter Shaw (Jonathan David Martin), who oversees the computers, is sweetly bumbling as he comes to terms with Henrietta's discoveries.
André J. Pluess' original music and sound design add to the sense of serenity Henrietta feels as she explores the depths of the sky.
Silent Sky runs through February 23, 2020, at Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth St., NW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-347-4833 or visit fords.org.
By Lauren Gunderson