Measuring the Luminous Universe, Silent Sky runs in La Mesa through Sept. 18


by Cassiopeia Guthrie, August 28, 2022


“The mind is sexless and so is the sky.” The distance between agency and legacy for women narrows slightly in Silent Sky, Lauren Gunderson’s historical fiction retelling of the real-life human computers in Harvard’s astrophysics lab, running through September 18 at Lamplighters Community Theatre.


This intimate community theatre, in existence since 1937 and at its current Severin Drive location since 2012, is tucked into a corner of a quiet shopping center. Yet, despite its unassuming location, Lamplighters has chosen well with this particular script, a drama featuring women who, in spite of the restrictions of their stations, invest in the reinvention of how we define and understand our galaxy and its space in the universe.


The story revolves around Henrietta Leavitt, a young Radcliffe College graduate and astronomer who begins work at the Harvard Observatory in 1903. To her disappointment, she soon finds that women’s ideas are unimportant to the renowned astronomer running the lab, Pickering; her job, as a woman, is to chart star data and stay silent. Nevertheless, Henrietta, working alongside fellow female “computers” Williamina Fleming and Annie Cannon, finds data about Cepheid stars that sparks a hunch. This grows into a late night obsession as she seeks the answers that explain the grand design of the universe. Along the way, Henrietta is forced to reckon with the balance of family obligations, illness, and developing relationships with colleagues on staff, including her supervisor, Peter Shaw, whose declaration of: “you’ve been the brightest object in my day since we met” received audible sighs from the house.


This production, which features Kathryn Schellinger as Henrietta, Omar Murrell as Peter, Heather Deerfield as Williamina, Amy Dell as Annie, and Edna Carel as Margaret (and which is directed by Mary L. Smith) does well to keep the story rolling. The first act, clocking in at over an hour long, covers Henrietta’s hiring at the observatory to help “collect, report, and maintain the largest stellar archive in the world” through shortly after her father’s passing, a duration of about 8 years. The use of letters throughout the act serve not only help advance the plot, but also to advance tension between characters (Henrietta and her sister Margaret, and later Henrietta and her beau Peter Shaw) and the staging of these overlapping letters across isolated location zones on the stage is effective. The actors themselves, three of whom are new to Lamplighters Theatre, are quick on their cues, nimble despite draping period costumes and the tight quarters of the Lamplighters stage, and are well suited to the roles they play.

Shaw and Leavitt examine a photographic plate in Silent Sky. Photo Credit: Ken Jacques.
Shaw and Leavitt examine a photographic plate in Silent Sky. Photo Credit: Ken Jacques.

Most notably, the writing of Silent Sky is provocative and clever: physics theories are woven in to explain social ills and challenges, the trio of female astronomers are witty in their banter, Leavitt’s partial deafness is used to enhance a variety of scenes, and the script is accompanied by original music by Jenny Giering throughout, which serves well to set the mood of each scene. And, while it is a creative addition on the part of the director to have actor Edna Carel play a preshow set on the on-stage piano, it is one that leads effortlessly into that integration of music throughout the script. Missing only from the script is an acknowledgement that Leavitt is not the only one in the lab who was hearing impaired; fellow astronomer Annie Cannon, who appears in this production, was not only famous for developing the Harvard Classification Scheme and a suffragette, but was deaf from childhood as well.


Special acknowledgment goes to the production staff, designers, and performers-as-crew. While venue-specific accoutrements are used to shift to each new location (the Harvard Observatory, Henrietta’s childhood home in Wisconsin, an ocean liner on the Atlantic, and her Cambridge home), these transitions are smooth and quick. And, despite the variance between these spaces, each is successfully housed within the standard frame provided by set designer Katrina Peterson, which is anything but standard. Peterson has employed beautiful navy walls, a large observation window spanning the width of the upstage wall and trimmed in gold, and an exquisite array of stars, galaxies, and nebulas which have been hand painted on all three sides. It’s lovely, and then is brought further to life by the inventive starscapes and lighting schemes created by lighting designer Cynthia Bloodgood.

Deaf astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (Kathryn Schellinger), Silent Sky. Photo Credit: Ken Jacques.
Deaf astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (Kathryn Schellinger), Silent Sky. Photo Credit: Ken Jacques.

In the final scene of the play, Schellinger is charged with highlighting the contributions of these women and detailing how their work has shaped our understanding of space. For those who have seen the film Hidden Figures or who are armchair astronomers, these contributions are not a surprise... but how lovely is it to see on stage how our understanding of the physical place in the universe was shaped by women passionate about education and understanding, and all of that before they even had the right to vote?


Silent Sky runs at Lamplighters Community Theatre through September 18th with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8p.m. and Sundays at 2p.m. Tickets are available at lamplighterslamesa.com.


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