Silent Sky

Silver Spring Stage transports us back to the early 20th Century to tell the story of Henrietta Leavitt, an American astronomer. Playwright, Lauren Gunderson, shines a light on the forgotten women of the Harvard College Observatory, the work they did to map the sky, and Leavitt’s discovery that paved the way to measure the distance between the stars.

The two sided Silver Spring Stage features the elegant Harvard workplace with entrances either side of a central bookcase. Andrew Greenleaf’s set is flanked by a projection screen on each wall and as the lights dim and Henrietta Leavitt (Marnie Kanarek) takes the stage they become windows to the heavens and sparkle with stars. Unfortunately at this very moment the projector goes into sleep mode and we see an hourglass on the screen and then a message about VGA inputs. The issue is over in a matter of seconds but our sense of wonder will take a little longer to recover.

For the vast majority of the show the screens are used very effectively as our way to experience the beauty and vastness of the night sky. However, in the opening scene, Henrietta, and her sister, Margaret (Annie Caruso), are on their way to worship and the stage right screen displays an early morning sky while the stage left screen shows a simple white church. The lighting is such that Caruso casts a shadow onto the screen displaying the church which is not visually pleasing. Later we are taken into a Harvard lecture room and then to Boston Harbor by the projected images. With the screens such an integral part of the set, the temptation for Director, Bill Hurlbut, to use them in other ways in understandable, but we can’t help feeling the more powerful choice would have been to only utilize them for us to look up. The lighting and ambient sound is enough to take us to these other locations.

Kanarek does a fine job expressing the frustration and determination of Henrietta as she tells of her intent to follow her passion and Caruso provides an excellent contrast as the homely and down to earth, Margaret. Their early dialogue suffers a little from the exchanges and movement being too proscenium in nature and that is also true when Henrietta arrives at Harvard and meets Peter Shaw (Noah Rich), Annie Conan (Marianne Meyers) and Williamina Fleming (Mindy Shaw). We needed more eye contact between the actors; their connection to each other is far more important than opening themselves up to the audience. Perhaps it is because of this that the first time we really feel an emotional connection between characters is when they are not in the same place, as Margaret reads aloud her letters to Henrietta who responds to them while she continues her work. This technique is used to great effect again later as Henrietta and Peter’s relationship is at its’ most believable when they are apart and we see their connection grow brighter and then diminish through their overlapping words.

Director, Bill Hurlbut, keeps an excellent pace to the show. The scene transitions are slick and subtle lighting changes signify the passing of time with the actors moving off stage or into a new position with precision timing. Once in each act, Greenleaf’s set delivers a nice surprise as one of the screens in removed and a platform slides out to reveal a hidden room, all achieved with minimal fuss. The costumes are all individually well done although perhaps lacking an overall cohesiveness and the nature of the wigging of Meyers is a little distracting.

Noah Rich finds the right balance between the chauvinist attitudes of the age and the social awkwardness his character feels around women.  Mindy Shaw captures the dry sense of humor of Williamina Fleming and is for the most part consistent with her Scottish accent (it occasionally crosses the Irish Sea) and her double act with the Marianne Meyers as the imposing Annie Cannon is a frequent source of laughter. While all three give good performances they do occasionally cross the line of playing it funny rather than just trusting that the writing is funny and some of the jokes are both verbally and physically spoon fed to the audience. As the staging becomes more intimate as the play progresses so do the relationships between the actors, especially between Kanarek and Caruso.

And then we reach the epilogue.

It’s just a beautiful, awe inspiring, moment as the whole theatre is bathed in stars and Kanarek reveals the fate of the characters we have been introduced to as they leave the stage one by one. While we care about these people, it is the context of her discovery, our place in the universe, and the authenticity of her emotion in the story telling that brings a tear to our eye.

#tothepoint Rating 62/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $25

Value Rating: -$1

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $24. Tickets are available on Groupon and Gold Star for $16.50 making the show excellent value for money if you can grab this deal. Silent Sky continues at Silver Spring Stage until May 28th.