Some of us are born with a passion, a passion for music or art or math. In the case of First Folio’s Silent Sky, one woman gives up almost everything in her personal life because she senses furiously, in her heart, that HER passion is going to lead to a discovery that will help all of humankind. This special woman, Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), turns out be absolutely correct.
Like the popular film "Hidden Figures", the 2011 play Silent Sky by playwright Lauren Gunderson, now making it's Chicago Premiere, tells a very important real life example of how women have been making significant contributions to Science and the Arts against almost impossible odds due to sexism in the work place. Leavitt is wonderfully played with a great zesty and nerdy enthusiasm by Cassandra Bissell who adds just the right amount of seditious touch to the headstrong and very determined character. She is one of the women termed "computers" by their male employers who has been given the great "honor" of painstakingly cataloging all the stars in the sky captured on glass plates by a telescope. As a new employee, she is never allowed to operate the high-powered telescope or use privately her own ideas to validate her own discoveries while earning a whopping $.25 an hour.
Leavitt is a proud, brilliant Radcliffe graduate. She jokes with her male supervisor Peter Shaw (keenly played by Wardell Julius Clark) that she and he are in fact "colleagues" that "Radcliffe is basically Harvard in skirts." As they fall in love with each other, he begins to soften on some of his more sexist behaviors including "borrowing" ideas from Leavitt to give to the professor (to whom she will never directly report) her discoveries by trying to claim them as his own. Leavitt is hired as one of Harvard astronomer Dr. Edward Charles Pickering's "computers" or, as they were referred to as "Pickering's Harem”.
Leavitt's work came at a time when we as earthlings had no idea where we were located in the Milky Way nor did we know how far away the billions of stars and galaxies made visible by the super powerful new telescope really are from our planet. Leavitt observes closely the luminosity of a class of stars known as Cepheid variables. Others had thought their flashes of light completely random, but through years of study and an epiphany provided by her musically inclined sister, Margaret (Haley Rice), who is composing a symphony in between giving birth to multiple children, Leavitt discovers that the stars are actually making sounds, a music of the stars. This eventually provided the ONLY key to measuring the distance between Earth and other galaxies. Creating the standard to measure the distance of stars from Earth, many male astronomers like Edwin Hubble greedily feasted on her published work to make names for themselves but poor Henrietta dies of cancer before one of them finally realizes she deserves to be nominated for, and win, the Nobel Prize - but the Nobel is not given posthumously and so she was never even nominated for it.
Annie Cannon (Jeannie Affelder) and Willamina Fleming (Belinda Bremner) play her fellow "computers" with a lusty, strong intelligence. The three characters develop a genuine family, a sisterhood, believing in Henrietta and encouraging her to take her work home with her (the glass plates are not allowed to leave the observatory) even when she is forced to move home to Wisconsin to take care of her dying father.
In the end, Henrietta gives up a promising offer of marriage to Shaw, the chance to have children of her own, and even her dream of traveling the world in order to complete her work.
Although I thought the gray monotone set in the chapel at Mayslake Peabody Estate was awfully depressing and didn't change enough to give us the sense of her whole life passing through it's dull indistinguishable doors, we are finally rewarded with the lighting display and music at the end of the show thanks to John "Smooch" Medina's projections, combined with Michael McNamara's lights and Christopher Kriz's musical score. The entire effect was spectacular, almost as if we are finally able to see the universe through Henrietta's passionate, intelligent eyes.
There really needs to be more biographical plays like this one written with respect and sympathy about women who have changed our place in the world for the better - forever. It is a terrible waste of human intelligence and a dirty shame that if you mention the name Henrietta Swan Leavitt to anyone girl child or even adult today that her life will ring no bells, her name strike no sense of recognition, gratefulness ignored for the contributions she made and the doors she broke down for female scientists to come.
Touching, beautiful and inspiring.
I highly recommend this thoughtful, poetic and understanding production for showing that some women will give up everything for the love of their work and dedication to humanity. Remembering theses outstanding individuals inspires and empowers us all, male or female, to chase our dreams to the end.
Superbly directed by Melanie Keller, Silent Sky is being performed at Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oakbrook through April 30th. For more information on this wonderful show or to purchase tickets, click here.
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