|Hana Lass and Candace Vance in Silent Sky (John Ulman)
Through February 27, 2016
Talented and prolific playwright, Lauren Gunderson, loves science and scientists. She also loves to reveal the accomplishments of real women whom most of us have never heard about. Gunderson has been produced before in Seattle. Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, and Exit, Pursued By a Bear, and The Taming were all produced at ArtsWest. Now, her play, Silent Sky, is at Taproot Theatre with a terrific cast.
Gunderson’s fascination with scientific women is a boon to us all. She not only informs us that they exist, she brings them to life, with hopes, fears, lust, ambition, brilliance, and the willingness to break the societal bonds that tried to keep them from their accomplishments. So, we meet Henrietta Leavitt.
Leavitt was an astronomer who fought all her life to achieve what she did, and volunteered for years at Harvard College Observatory just to be close to their telescope and to work in her field. She lived a fairly short life, dying at 53, as many did at the time, from cancer. But by that point, she had discovered so much about stars that her discoveries allowed other scientists, including Edward Hubble, to determine that the Milky Way was one of billions of galaxies, rather than the only one.
Silent Sky allows this woman to live and breathe, showing the societal constraints she was up against. Leavitt (played by a luminous Hana Lass) is surrounded by a somewhat neglected sister (Candace Vance), two other “computers” and women scientists who achieved much at Harvard despite the condescension, Williamina Fleming (Kim Morris) and Annie Cannon (Nikki Visel), and a male supervisor (endearingly played by Calder Jameson Shilling).
An elegantly spare staging by Mark Lund allows for simple changes in a few furnishings to seamlessly go from the Leavitt home in Wisconsin to Harvard’s astronomy center. Director Karen Lund surely guides the actors in creating the turn of the century atmosphere, with the help of Sarah Burch Gordon’s gorgeous period costuming.
Lass is always compelling and watchable. Here she has to overcome a bit of a languid Act One where not very much “happens,” but the characters are well established. So, her stage charisma is very much needed. But the rest of the cast totally pull their weight with Morris making great use of her comedic timing and Visel playing an acerbic, bracing and ultimately laudable astronomer, herself. Vance gets the only non-scientist role, but fills in the family story and provides some lovely singing, to boot.
Shilling, the lone male, has a lot to overcome from the box that playwright Gunderson puts his character in. He starts off almost entirely unlikable and then wins the audience over as he also wins Leavitt’s heart. Though there isn’t historically a proof that Leavitt fell in love, it adds some humanity, and struggle, into the character, enlarging her in the entertainment.
Once established, Act Two entices with more emotion in both the human and scientific arenas. Gunderson’s prose here veers into poetic pronouncements about life that are well received. And some lovely lighting (by Amanda Sweger) surprises, allowing for a truly moving ending.
Give this one a go! You’ll learn something and be entranced at the same time.