Updated: Oct 6, 2021
‘Silent Sky’ speaks volumes about our (dis)regard for women
Costa Mesa Playhouse brings Lauren Gunderson’s history-based drama about an obscure but key female astronomer back to the city where the show premiered in 2011.
By Eric Marchese
Funny that while most people have a passing knowledge of Edwin Hubble and his work, few are familiar with Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an astronomer at the Harvard College Observatory whose studies laid the groundwork for Hubble’s scientific advances in determining the size of the universe.
Well, maybe not so funny. Throughout world history, the accomplishments of women in various fields have routinely been downplayed when compared with those of men.
The movie “Hidden Figures” depicted women working in science who were shoved into the background while men working alongside them, often building upon their work, were given the spotlight.
Set a half-century earlier, the play “Silent Sky” shows Leavitt encountering much the same. In charting her life and career, playwright Lauren Gunderson emphasizes the joint truisms of male dominance and misogyny.
Working at the Harvard Observatory, Leavitt made math-based computations that formed the foundation for astronomers like Hubble. Her discoveries charted the relation between a star’s luminosity and its distance from earth, changing the course of modern astronomy and thus meriting serious attention.
Serious attention they get in “Silent Sky,” which premiered at South Coast Repertory in 2011.
The play follows Leavitt’s work as a “human computer” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In doing so, it documents the brilliant, headstrong pioneer’s struggles for recognition in the male-dominated world of turn-of-the-century astronomy.
“Silent Sky” also explores a woman’s place in society during a time of immense scientific discoveries, when womens’ ideas were, for the most part, dismissed – at least until men claimed credit for them.
Given high marks by theater patrons and critics alike, and described as insightful, the play is making a return trip to the city where it premiered in a new production at Costa Mesa Playhouse.
Directed by Kathy Paladino, CMP’s staging stars Kendall Sinclair as Leavitt and Sarah McGuire, David Rodriguez, Marlene Galan Woods and Jennifer Walquist as those in her orbit.
Paladino said she hadn’t seen previous productions of “Silent Sky” prior to reading the script, nor was she familiar with Leavitt and her crucial role in astronomy: “I was not familiar with her at all, which, in itself, is a sad statement on our society’s respect and recognition of brilliant women."
The director cites multiple factors as drawing her to the play and generating a desire to direct it. First off, she said, “I loved the script. Lauren Gunderson is a wonderful writer with a true feminist viewpoint without being strident or ‘preachy.’ I love her writing. I love her dialogue and her development of each character.”
Paladino says she also loved “learning about a ‘forgotten’ woman who was the reason we know we live in an infinite universe,” calling Leavitt’s passion for her work “inspiring.”
Considering the sizable popularity of movies versus the relatively smaller percentage of theatergoers on a regular basis, comparisons with “Hidden Figures” are almost inevitable.
Paladino said that in much the same way the 2016 film “brought to light the ‘computers’ in the ’60s,” the play “does the same thing for ‘computers’ at the turn of the century. It presents fleshed out, three-dimensional women living in a completely different time.”
Lest anyone form the impression that “Silent Sky” simplistically glorifies women and bashes men, Paladino notes that Gunderson “creates fully developed male roles. She does not downplay the misogyny of the time, but she also doesn’t demonize the men who were as much a slave of the time period as the women were.” That fact indicates that praise is due the playwright for her objectivity.
As we’ve seen, though, history does frequently omit or downplay women and their achievements, let alone giving them credit for their accomplishments and discoveries. Why is that so often the case?
“That is the question, isn’t it?” Paladino said. “I think we need only look at our current environment, and the answer is unfortunately crystal clear. Misogyny runs deep in our country. Women have to be better, but not too much better; smarter, but not too much smarter; angry, but not too angry…etc., etc.”
Gunderson, Paladino said, personalizes Leavitt’s life story, and “this is why I love her writing. The ‘message’ is never overshadowed by the human story.” The play, she said, “follows Leavitt from the time she begins her work at Harvard till her death at 53 – and all the important relations in her life.”
Leavitt never married or had a serious romance, and as “Silent Sky” depicts her, her work was the end-all and be-all of her existence. And while most of the play is factual, the playwright did add a romantic interest for Leavitt in the form of an entirely fictional character – Peter Shaw, the Harvard astronomer who runs the department where Leavitt works and whose presence in the story, Paladino says, “enhances Henrietta’s story and the complete love she had for her work.”
The play, Paladino notes, also looks at another key relationship in the astronomer’s life – that with her ultra-religious sister, Margie. In doing so, Gunderson creates “an interesting look at the disparity and, ultimately, the connection between science and faith.”
Indeed, the play shows the philosophical, quasi-religious, big-picture view of the heavens Leavitt takes as something meant to inspire awe and mute human nature’s tendency for self-flattery – a point underscored by Gunderson’s quoting of the Walt Whitman poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
In “Hidden Figures” fashion, “Silent Sky” also focuses on the work of two of Leavitt’s women colleagues – photometrics department supervisor Annie Cannon and co-worker Willamina Fleming, who are forced to work behind the scenes by virtue of their gender (and the era’s inherent sexism).
Paladino hopes Costa Mesa Playhouse audiences will recognize “a human story with characters who love and care for each other and for the work they do.”
She hopes they also “come away with a sense of wonder for this vast universe and our place in it – and, ultimately, I would like to enlighten us all about the impact this woman had on our understanding of our universe.”
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 35 years as a freelance and staff journalist for various publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater in Orange County and throughout Southern California.
Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton Street, Costa Mesa
September 24-October 17. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m., Thu. October 7 at 8 p.m, Sat. October 16th at 2 p.m.
949- 650-5269, costamesaplayhouse.com