Lauren Gunderson’s play Silent Sky is currently in production from Providence Players of Fairfax. Based on the true story of astronomer Henriette Leavitt, the show presents a fascinating account of her process of discovery, the adversity that she and other female colleagues of the early 1900s had to endure, and her personal struggle to find fulfillment and balance in life, love, and ambition.
Gunderson’s writing is incredibly witty and surprisingly funny, which buoys the energy of the show among the many moments of frustration, disappointment, and heartbreak in Henrietta’s life. And Director Tina Hodge Thronson has done an excellent job moving the scenes and transitions quickly.
Andra Whitt plays Henrietta Leavitt, affectionately called “Henri” by her sister Margaret, played by Amanda Ranowsky. Whitt and Ranowsky do a lovely job capturing the natural banter of sisters who love each other and still drive each other crazy.
The two are complete opposites, with Margaret being a churchgoing woman, content to find a good husband and settle down, while Henrietta has no interest in faith over science and longs for purpose. Whitt explores this journey of determination to make a contribution, with moments of hesitation and doubt about a personal life she never explored. Her struggle of intellect over heart is relatable, and Whitt brought a bittersweet realness to Henri’s story.
But Maragret’s life is never rendered unnecessary or lesser than Henri’s. Just as innovation and investigation are essential to growth, Margaret’s nurturing and more domestic tendencies are equally vital to society. Ranowsky and Whitt both act out this struggle to be valued in the world but also in the eyes of their sister.
The theme of sisterhood is prevalent throughout the show. At a time when equal rights for women was only just gaining traction in the social eye, these women were struggling, virtually alone, making camaraderie and support all the more precious.
Lesleyanne Kessler as Annie Cannon and Roxanne Waite as Williamina Fleming are Henri’s fellow “human computers,” as the ladies at Harvard College Observatory were called, and a respite in a male-dominated field that undervalues women. Kessler and Waite are delightful as like-minded intellectuals who create a safe space for Henri’s exploration to thrive, while also bringing genuine emotion and goals to their personalities.
As the sole male in the cast, Chris Persil is Peter Shaw, a colleague at the Harvard College Observatory. He is the point of contact for Edward Pickering, the director of the Observatory, who is far too important and busy to be bothered with the menial tasks of the female employees. Persil is charming as the bumbling and awkward Shaw, who grows to appreciate the contribution of the women he works with. Shaw’s character takes a backseat, as he should, in a show highlighting the valiant efforts of women in the scientific field and the many advancements they made that went unrecognized.
Providence Players’ production of Silent Sky is a delightful experience bursting with science, the importance of friendship, and the art of finding value in life. Going into the show, I anticipated a level of boredom or drag due to exposition and astronomy jargon, but that never materialized. The cast does a great job bringing the material to life and keeping the energy flowing.
Silent Sky is history with heart. An homage to the overlooked or forgotten women in our past whose accomplishments were key to the knowledge and technologies that exist today. And a compelling story of struggle and success.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission
Silent Sky plays through April 1, 2023, presented by Providence Players of Fairfax, performing at The James Lee Community Center Theater at 2855 Annandale Road, Falls Church, VA. Tickets cost $21, with a $3 discount for seniors and students, and are available for purchase online, by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), by calling (703) 425-6782, or in-person at the Box Office starting 30 minutes prior to the show.
COVID Safety: Masks are no longer required. For complete protocols, check online.
By Lauren Gunderson
Henriette Leavitt: Andra Whitt; Margaret Leavitt: Amanda Ranowsky; Peter Shaw: Chris Persil; Annie Cannon: Lesleyanne Kessler; Williamina Fleming: Roxanne Waite
Director: Tina Hodge Thronson; Producer: Mike Daze; Stage Manager: Susan Kaplan; Lighting Designer: Sarah Mournighan; Sound Design: Jason Hamrick; Tech Crew: Jason Damaso, Mario Font; Photographer: Chip Gertzog; Set Design/Set Decoration: John Coscia, Costume Design/Hair/Makeup: Robbie Snow; Properties: Judi Deatherage, Marie Flanigan; Box Office and Ticket Sales: Mike Daze; House Management: Kathi Ranowsky; Playbill: Susan Kaplan; Playbill Design: Ellen Burns; Playbill Advertising: Jayne L. Victor; Marketing: David Whitehead