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Story of women astronomers told with a sense of wonder

A sparkling production of Silent Sky plays at Walterdale Theatre
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Review

Silent Sky

Runs until Oct. 12

Walterdale Theatre

10322 83 Ave., Edmonton

Tickets: $18 to $2; call 780-420-1757 or at door

How often have we stared in fascination at the night sky’s millions of points of light twinkling in the blackness? Soundless it stares back, and we wonder what secrets it holds. We drink in its beauty for a few timeless moments and then go back to our ordinary lives.

Henrietta Leavitt, an early 20th century astronomer barely known outside the scientific community, made it her mission to root out the universe’s secrets despite the fact that, as a woman astronomer, the deck was stacked against her.

For the first time in history, she discovered a relationship between Cepheid stars’ luminosity and how often they pulse. This observation gave scientists a standard of measurement that determined the distance between stars and galaxies. This in turn led to the modern expanding universe theory.

At first glance, science might appear as a cold, remote topic. However, Lauren Gunderson, America’s most produced playwright, proves once again Silent Sky makes great theatre.

The two-hour production is full of humour, moments of sadness and bits of frustration. But there are also eureka moments at times of significant discovery.

This compelling story of a woman starts with Henrietta’s offer of employment at Harvard University’s astronomy lab. She is excited to use the world’s most sophisticated telescope, but her supervisor Peter Shaw quickly disabuses Henrietta of the idea. She is a woman and the female sex is not permitted to work the telescope.

Women are hired to work as “computers” tabulating cosmic data observed from glass plates photographed by the telescope. Treated as data processors, the women recognize that in the male dominated university their recommendations are barely acknowledged.

Yet their excitement at working in a revolutionary field remains undimmed. Lauren Hughes as the spunky Henrietta bursts with passion, intensity and a bottomless hunger for knowledge.

Joy van de Ligt as Margaret, the motherly sister, is a good contrast. She takes on the family’s traditional role caring for their father and is hurt that Henrietta pays so little attention to those back home.

Her co-workers are a tart-tongued group hiding marshmallow hearts. Susanne Ritchie as the Scottish Williamina Fleming is warm, chatty, fairly mellow and loves to tease. She was previously the housekeeper for Dr. Edward Pickering, the observatory director, and was promoted to the lab as the first woman computer.

Samantha Woolsey is Annie Cannon, the no-nonsense current head of the department. Woolsey is also a suffragette, and Cannon gives her character a steely veneer tempered with a kind heart.

And lastly Matt Mihilewicz is Peter Shaw, the computers’ supervisor and Henrietta’s love interest. One of the production's comic elements has Peter making excuses to come visit Henrietta but is tongue-tied at the sight of her. Comedy is not everyone’s strong suit, but Mihilewicz nails every scene.

Ultimately Silent Sky is about resilience, love and loss, and being in awe of the universe. Thankfully, although the bulk of characters are women, the play veers away from overt feminism.

Director Kim Mattice Wanat has overlaid the production with a gentle quality that speaks to the vast beauty of the sky and the importance of one woman’s dedication to the stars.

The only thing missing from a nearly perfect production is a telescope.

 

 


Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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