The stars have aligned for the latest Richmond Hill Players production, which promises to be out of this world.

“Silent Sky” by Lauren Gunderson — about the pioneering astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921) — will be presented Thursdays through Sundays, July 14-24 at the Barn Theatre in Geneseo’s Richmond Hill Park. 

Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921) working at the Harvard College Observatory.

When Leavitt begins work at the Harvard Observatory in the first decade of the 20th century, she isn’t allowed to touch a telescope or express an original idea. Instead, she joins a group of women “computers,” charting the stars for men who claim credit for their advances.

As Henrietta measures the light and distance of stars, she must also take measure of her life on Earth, trying to balance her dedication to science against family obligations and the possibility of love, according to a synopsis. Social progress, like scientific discovery, can be hard to gauge when one is trapped among earthly complications.

Based on real people and events, “Silent Sky” is described as “a heartfelt, humorous, and inspiring look at the determination, passion, and sacrifice of women who helped redefine our understanding of the cosmos.”

The play spans the last 20 years of her life, before her death from stomach cancer at age 53.

Elizabeth Melville and Kady Patterson as sisters Margaret & Henrietta Leavitt in “Silent Sky.”

“For this brief amount of time, she was making these vast, incredible discoveries at Harvard,” Kady Patterson of Silvis, who plays Henrietta, said Wednesday, noting Leavitt lost her hearing over the course of her life.

“She was kind of wracked with health problems for most of her life,” she said. “I definitely have pressure to pay homage to this woman.”

“It’s just incredible what she dedicated her life to,” Patterson said. “Maybe she knew she didn’t have long in this world, so it gave her all the more fire.”

There are scenes in the play where she gets feisty and upset, because she’s making discoveries that fundamentally changed the way we understand the universe. And people were pretty dismissive of her, Patterson said. Women couldn’t even vote in the U.S. until 1920.

“How could a woman understand that level of math? Women weren’t allowed to be professors,” she said. “Women couldn’t get degrees at Harvard. She was very much dismissed and it was only after people started applying her work that they realized this is real, this is serious.”

According to Harvard, observatory director Edward Pickering brought together a group of women to catalog all the stars captured on Harvard’s photographic plate collection. These skilled workers were not allowed to operate telescopes, but they contributed to the analysis of data that led to major scientific discoveries.

Some of the women from this group, called “computers,” classified stars by their colors, brightness, and spectra. Pickering assigned Leavitt the task of studying variable stars, a type of star that varies in brightness over time.

From left, Kevin Maynard, Kady Patterson, Diane Greenwood, Terri Nelson, and Elizabeth Melville. 

Dr. Pickering deserves credit that we know about Leavitt’s importance, Patterson said.

“Silent Sky” takes some poetic liberties with Henrietta’s real life, and creates a central romance with Peter Shaw (who represents men of the era), played by Kevin Maynard of Rock Island.

“The bigger point there is this woman sacrificed that, in order to pursue this,” Patterson said of her career. “She could have married; that would have been the normal thing to do. That would have given her a stable life. She didn’t do that.”

Reuniting Geneseo grads

The play is especially satisfying for the leads since Maynard and Patterson went to Geneseo High School at the same time (he graduated in 2006 and she 2008), where they were active in theater and the speech team.

When he found out he was cast opposite Patterson, Maynard was excited.

“I’ve always enjoyed Kady; she’s just a great person,” he said Tuesday. “She is talented on stage and so it was nice to know who I was going to play opposite of. And I was excited to get to see her again and obviously get to work with her.”

“I knew he was a good actor, and turns out, he was available for it. It’s great, because I hadn’t seen Kevin in years,” Patterson said Wednesday. “It’s a lot of fun to work with him.”

Kevin Maynard and Kady Patterson in “Silent Sky,” which opens on July 14.

As an actress, she is terrified of public displays of affection, but it works with Maynard. The executive director of Quad City Arts, he is married and she has a boyfriend.

“Kevin is just so good at making anyone he’s around feel comfortable,” Patterson said. “He’s my buddy and this is just so easy to do with him.” She works for a IT services company that provides firewall and web filtering for schools.

Maynard is back on the Richmond Hill stage after a 10-year hiatus. Many of his favorite roles happened there, including Eddie Pazinski in “Over the Tavern” and “Last Mass at St. Casimir’s,” and Jason in “Rabbit Hole.” His wife Lily is a veteran theater professional, and they acted in “Almost, Maine” together in Macomb, in 2013.

Patterson appeared in “Clue” at RHP last October, but that was her first time back onstage in Geneseo since 2010 (“Funny Valentines” and “Christmas Belles”).

After high school, Patterson spent a year at Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y., and transferred to Monmouth College in Illinois, where she had a theater scholarship.

She loves “Clue,” and last fall got the role of Mrs. White, which was played by Madeline Kahn in the 1985 movie.

“I do a lot of comedy, so this role is not comedy,” Patterson said of “Silent Sky.” “I love a good comedic role, and I love that movie because Madeline Kahn is such a knockout comedic actress. That role is, she’s such a psychopath. It was so much fun to play.”

Patterson liked to specialize in comedic speech in high school. This is the first time she and Maynard have acted opposite each other in a play. Neither saw the “Silent Sky” production in 2019 at Moline’s Black Box Theatre.

Singing the play’s praises

The play’s title refers to Henrietta’s deafness.

“Viewing the sky in total silence is referenced a couple times in the play,” Patterson said. “That was her world. She maybe had a hard time interacting with the world down on Earth, because of her illnesses and hearing loss. The world up there, I think she might have been more intimately attached to, because she was so invested in it.”

Diane Greenwood (left) and Terri Nelson give Kevin Maynard a piece of their minds in “Silent Sky.”

Henrietta’s sister Margie in the play (Elizabeth Melville) plays piano, and there’s a moment where Henrietta understands the pattern she’s looking for. It’s described in the play as music, Patterson said.

The lyrical text is very musical, she noted. “I definitely think Lauren Gunderson, the playwright, must have played each of these roles.”

“I feel like the writing is very deliberate; she ties things together,” Patterson said. “I think it’s really good writing, actually.”

Maynard saw a production of the play with Lily in Anchorage, Alaska, in early March 2020, right before COVID shutdowns.

“We went to support the theater company and knew nothing about the show,” he said. “We really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it and was interested in being part of it.” He also had never heard of Henrietta Leavitt before.

“And the other thing is, it’s a very touching script,” Maynard said. “There are just some really beautiful moments and some beautiful language. The story didn’t go exactly where I thought it was going to go. So it was just out of the ordinary and it stuck with me.”

Challenges and benefits of RHP

Directed by Jennifer Kingry, the “Silent Sky” cast includes Diane Greenwood (Geneseo), Terri Nelson (Lynn Center) and Elizabeth Melville (Bettendorf).  

Patterson appreciates RHP (an intimate theater in the round) for “being very welcoming and very supportive. People who do shows there, they care,” she said. “It’s not just something to keep them busy in the evenings. I am just doing my best to keep up with Diane Greenwood. Day one of rehearsal, she had all of her lines memorized. Kevin is phenomenal. Terri Nelson is a regular.”

Kevin Maynard and Kady Patterson in “Silent Sky,” which will block off one section of the theater for the starry backdrop.

It’s a challenge for actors in the round, where they have to be aware of being angled toward different audience sections. “It’s got to all be very natural moves, so you’re hyper-aware of them,” Patterson said.

Having the audience that close to actors is a little nerve-wracking, she said.

“You literally can turn your head and make eye contact with somebody. They’re a couple of feet away,” Patterson said. “If I recognize people in the audience, that’s kind of dangerous. And the problem is, it’s Geneseo, so there’s a good probability I’ll recognize someone.”

“Silent Sky” is unusual for RHP in that one side section of seats is blocked off, where there will be a backdrop to show the night sky.   

The play opens July 14, and runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., as well as two Sundays at 3 p.m.

Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling the Richmond Hill box office at 309-944-2244 or by visiting their website HERE. Late seating is not permitted; no one will be admitted to the theater after the show has started. 

Admission to all performances is $12. Audio Description performance will be held Friday, July 15. Richmond Hill offers Assistive Listening Devices, which can be requested at the time that reservations are made.