Silent Sky tells an important story about how contemporary cosmology came to be. Like the extraordinary movie Hidden Figures (2016) which tells of the groundbreaking black woman mathematicians without whom John Glenn would not have made it into orbit, this is the story of women "computers" in the 19th Century. At this time, women did not have the vote, much less be recognized for playing a role in uncovering the mysteries of the universe. Harvard's astronomy department didn't want Henrietta Leavitt's ideas, they wanted her labor, function, and supreme math skills, for low pay and no credit. In the 19th century, this is a man's universe. Or so many men of the time would have liked to believe.
But it doesn't take long for one man to believe; the nerve-wracked awkward Peter Shaw, an astronomy fellow who falls for Henrietta about the moment he realizes he's nowhere near her equal in imagination. Along with her female co-workers, and the inspiration of her musical sister, Margaret, Henrietta uncovers a mystery that will change the way we see and understand the stars forever.
I don't want to spoil the magic. Simply know that this is one of the finest productions you'll see this year at the HIPP or anywhere. The set (design by Julie Ray), lighting (design by Bob Robbins), and sound (design by Amanda Nipper) are absolutely stunning. The acting is top-notch. And this is a play with something for everyone. In this day and age with the world the way it is, do yourself a favor and capture some awe, relativity, empathy, and hope. If this production doesn't move you, seek help.
Elise Hudson shines as Henrietta Leavitt, capturing the full range of emotional content required for such a character; strength, vulnerability, passion, and obsession, all with a forthright no-nonsense determination to follow her dreams. Imagine if you will, a hard-of-hearing woman in a world of music, rewarded with a position at Harvard only to discover her view of the stars will only be on sheets of photo glass and absolutely never through the Great Refractor telescope at the observatory. She's relegated to the basement with the other "computers". It's a heartbreak she won't stand for. She's not that type of woman.
Savannah Simerly as Henrietta's younger sister, Margaret, can break your heart with a glance. Margaret grounds and inspires Henrietta, even as she contends with their father's illness and ultimate demise. She is the play's beating heart and never loses faith in her sister. The universe that surrounds us is nothing without the universe within. Savannah brings this reality to bear in her masterful portrayal of this character.
As Peter Shaw, Tim Dowd centers his character in dazzling nerdishness and resolute duty. A man-child of discomfiture, if he ever got the kiss he longs for, he'd probably go supernova. Yes, that's a space pun. One really discovers Dowd's masterful acting when, in Henrietta's dream sequence, he's suddenly as suave, stately, and assured as a young Brando. Not a word out of place. Then, just as quick as Henrietta awakens, so returns the stuttering shambling stammer of a man, cracking his impotent whip at ladies who could easily best him physically, emotionally, and mentally. How Dowd manages to inject charm into all this is a miracle.
Cynthia Beckert portrays the matriarch of the women in the character of Annie Cannon. Annie is somewhat of a taskmaster at first but has the style and good humor to create the mnemonic, "Oh! Be A Fine Girl — Kiss Me!". Want to know what that stands for? See the play. The thrill of Cynthia's performance is to see how she deftly navigates Annie's through-line from a tough-as-nails administrator to a warm supportive compassionate friend to Henrietta.
And as Williamina Fleming, Laura Shatkus KILLS, damn-near stealing the show. Williamina, with her tough Scottish brogue, is both comic relief and the muscle of the ensemble. She can beat any man's ass with nothing but her words. God forbid she's pushed to bloodshed. She also happens to have discovered the Horsehead Nebula in 1888. Shatkus as Fleming is a discovery of epic proportions; equal parts feisty, passionate, robust, and sympathetic. Fleming's unwavering devotion to friendship conveys to the audience in genuine palpable truth.
Superbly directed by Stephanie Lynge, Silent Sky at the HIPP is Steller. Yes, another space pun. Accuracy can be funny. I've hyperlinked each character for further study so you can geek out and discover the importance of these women and what they managed to accomplish under adversity and oppression. See this play to honor their memory and the significance of their discoveries. Without their accomplishments, Voyager wouldn't be carrying music and imagery of our diversity as the most distant human-made object from Earth. Let's hope that whomever/whatever discovers it is a Chuck Berry fan.
Here's the link to get your tickets because this comet won't return in your lifetime. You'll be enriched, humbled, entertained, inspired, educated, and expanded. That's what theatre is for, after all.
ABOUT THE PLAY: https://thehipp.org/silent-sky/
SHAMROCK McSHANE'S IN-DEPTH REVIEW: