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.
From the moment you enter the darkened and eerie Tudor Revival styled Mayslake Peabody Estate and are handed a dance card indicating which group of theater goers you will follow throughout the performance, the tension and excitement of this wonderful production begins to mount. Not long after First Folio Theatre’s “The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story” begins the audience is divided, following different sets of actors from room to room.
The large, dark house, lit by the light of the full "Blood Moon" on opening night is still haunted by the memory of the husband who lovingly built the entire estate for his wife over a decade and then passed away during a fox hunt the year after it was finished. This site specific mansion is the perfect theater setting for this dynamic and revealing look at Edgar Allen Poe's work as a hugely successful fiction writer as well as his tragic life and loves.
It is very rare, with the large amount of theater I see, week after week, that I am watching a show and at the same time planning in my mind which friends of mine I would like to come back and see it with again.
I loved how the audience moved from room to room within the mansion, sometimes seeing a portion of a scene while standing in a hallway or while entering the genuine antique chapel built after the estate was sold. It was a lot of fun and gave the audience a feeling of mystery and danger, as though we were instant comrades and active participants in the play itself.
Christopher Kriz did a fantastic job with the tricky sound design in each of the authentically scary rooms of this aging mansion. Each sound Kriz creates building the tension and surrounds the tiny audience in such a way that we really felt the Tell-Tale Heart beating in our own ears, not just coming out of a single speaker anywhere.
I learned so much about Poe's life and work that I had not known before. The sad irony that not only did he watch his mother die of consumption at the tender age of six, he then witnessed the slow death of his adoring stepmother and finally his wife Virginia wasting away and coughing up blood daily from the same devastating disease.
I also did not realize what an amazing amount, and romantically stunning quality, of love letters and love poetry Poe wrote in his lifetime to his wife Virginia and often to another married woman named Annie whom he loved from afar.
On the back of the dance card is printed the single sad poem his wife Virginia, his first cousin whom he married when he was 27 and she just 13 years old, although they did not consummate the marriage until she was 16. The tragic fact that they shared just nine blissful years together, four of them while she was healthy and five where she began to deteriorate from consumption. He made the right decision to follow his heart and court her from pretty much the moment they met because he knew on some unconscious level that their precious time together was ticking away quite quickly and he died just two years after her passing at the age of 40.
Christian Gray, who portrays Poe, does a stunning job of showing the sadness and turmoil inside of Poe while never losing the absolute passion and headstrong devotion for his wife Virginia. Gray seems to drink in like a thirsty vampire the femininely beautiful essence of his wife Virginia from her head to toe in every scene. You sense that Gray, whose eyes are often brimming with tears, as if struggling to speak - as if his next breath depends solely upon seeing her loving reaction to him and his writings in every moment and every delicate hour that passed between them. Without Gray's nicely sensual, sometimes earthy and sometimes heart wrenching performance, the "Love Story" portion of this play would not have been nearly as convincing.
Diana Mair makes a lovely, charming, sensitive portrayal of Poe’s wife Virginia. Mair's sympathetic, yet lighthearted telling of Poe's tragic early years and her burning love for him comes off with a mature, yet modernly sassy quality that makes you understand how he could be so in love with her and then so completely lost without her as his enthusiastic muse after her untimely death at the age of 22.
Actor Kevin McKillip, also outstanding, has several great, and fright building scenes as the madman in the retelling of "The Tell-Tale Heart" and as a prisoner locked in a dungeon with the blade of a scythe rapidly approaching to cut him apart in “The Pit and the Pendulum", appropriately performed in a room so dark you could not see the person sitting next to you.
Here is just one of Poe's hundreds of love letter/poems to Annie, one of his few unrequited loves:
“So long as I think that you know I love you, as no man ever loved woman - so long as I think you comprehend in some measure, the fervor with which I adore you, so long, no worldly trouble can ever render me absolutely wretched. But oh, my darling, my Annie, my own sweet sister Annie, my pure beautiful angel - wife of my soul - to be mine hereafter and forever in the Heavens - how shall I explain to you the bitter, bitter anguish which has tortured me since I left you?”
In a surprising and childlike way Poe signed his letters to her, and to his beloved wife Virginia with the adorable “forever your own, Eddy…”.
I highly recommend this scary, yet passionately romantic retelling of Poe's life and hard won genius. It will definitely make you want to read more of Poe's work, especially his prolific amount of luscious, spellbinding love letters!
By the end of the play you understand why ALL of the women in his life, were utterly captured and held close by his heartfelt writings to them and adored him so completely during the short time on earth they each shared with him.
First Folio Theatre’s “The Madness of Edgar Allan Poe: A Love Story” is being performed at the Mayslake Peabody Mansion in Oakbrook through November 4th. For more information on this unique and haunting production, visit www.firstfolio.org.
*One note, on disability access, First Folio may want to add a disclaimer on its website informing the disabled and elderly theatre goers that the play does require climbing some stairs and brief standing in addition to its mention that the show moves around the mansion.