The current production of Lauren Gunderson’s touching, poignant “Silent Sky” by Richmond Hill Players, Geneseo, is deeply affecting, important and relevant for many reasons.
First off, it takes a real, little-known person (the pioneering astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt), and brings her thrillingly to life. Leavitt (1868-1921) was a Harvard “computer” — one of several women in the early 1900s who studied photographic plates to determine fundamental properties of stars.
Leavitt is best known for discovering about 2,400 variable stars between 1907 and 1921 (when she died from stomach cancer).
She discovered that some stars have a consistent brightness no matter where they are located, making these so-called Cepheid variables a good measuring stick for astronomical distances. Her work helped American astronomer Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) measure galaxy distances in the 1920s, which led to his realization that the universe is expanding and is much larger than previously known.
A 2018 Harvard article noted that as with many other female scientists of her time, “Leavitt’s contributions to her field went largely unacknowledged by the scientific peers.” For example, an article about her on the American Association of Variable Star Observers website reported:
“As she had lived quietly, unnoticed, so her death left barely a ripple among her peers to the extent that when, in 1925, the Swedish mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler wrote her a letter, ‘Honoured Miss Leavitt, your admirable discovery … has impressed me so deeply that I feel seriously inclined to nominate you to the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1926,’ he had to be informed that she had in fact been dead for four years. As the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, Leavitt never received her nomination.”
“Silent Sky” – so named because Henrietta was partially deaf – makes us care about this work at Richmond Hill through the visionary, sensitive direction of Jennifer Kingry and the passionate, enthralling performance of Kady Patterson as Leavitt.
The extraordinary, spectacular production is as intimate as Henrietta’s determined drive to make a difference in the world, and be loyal to her family, and as unimaginably boundless as the billions of galaxies in the universe. Both ends of the spectrum are equally breathtaking.
Kingry notes that Leavitt provided Gunderson something of a blank slate for her play, having left behind no personal diary, journals or letters.
In “Silent Sky” (which takes place over about 20 years), Henrietta arrives at the Harvard College Observatory eager to use its Great Refractor telescope, but is told that she won’t be able to do any sort of astronomical discovery herself.
She will only log the stars photographed by the men of the department, with her more experienced female co-workers – the terrifically dependable Terri Nelson as Annie and Diane Greenwood as Williamina. And women didn’t get the credit they deserved.
However, Henrietta will not be dissuaded and Patterson portrays her with an uncompromising relentlessness. She begins the process of recording the changes in Cepheid stars — a discovery that has had a huge, lasting impact on the field of astronomy.
Though it seems the real Leavitt was quiet and shy, Patterson is outspoken and fearless. Her relationships are tested by her singular, dogged work ethic – with her devoted sister Margaret (Elizabeth Melville) and her love interest Peter Shaw (a fictional character representing men of the era, played by Kevin Maynard), who is the more shy one.
Peter (another observatory scientist) fittingly calls Henrietta the brightest object in his day, and they work with freaking stars. Patterson certainly has fire and excitement in her eyes, and she has a consistently warm, winning presence. The gradual admiration, turning into affection, by Peter is haltingly and adorably captured by Maynard.
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. The excellent Melville and Patterson share an undeniable family bond.
Geneseo stars align
This 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.
Before he was director of Quad City Arts (his current day job), Maynard was active on stage at Richmond Hill, and he impressively returns after a 10-year hiatus.
Part of the spectacle of “Silent Sky” is how Kingry has transformed the 160-seat “in the round” barn theater with one side of seats blocked off. That’s where a large screen projects images of space, the ocean and key scene locales, and there’s a raised platform where Henrietta and Peter also have indelible moments. (Other seats are blocked off, leaving about 125 total capacity.)
The gorgeous, yearning piano music (by Jenny Giering, which comes with the play), beautiful images of stars, gently bobbing ocean waves, and Gunderson’s lyrical flights of fancy all combine to make many parts of “Silent Sky” achingly romantic and haunting.
In the story, Margie’s playing piano and Henrietta’s connection between music and the patterns of stars’ brightness and blinking lead to a breakthrough discovery at the close of the first act.
Gunderson a prolific playwright
In 2019-20, there were 33 different productions of Gunderson’s plays across the country, the most of any playwright. Just 40 years old, she already has over 20 published plays in circulation (three have been done at Moline’s Black Box Theatre in recent years – “Silent Sky,” “I and You” and “The Revolutionists”).
In May 2019, Kingry played Williamina in the BBT production of “Silent Sky,” directed by Lora Adams.
Here, the Scottish, matronly Williamina a is embodied by the wonderful RHP veteran Diane Greenwood, with her characteristic playfulness, unpretentiousness and persistent gleam in her eyes. Greenwood has been involved with RHP since 1984, and has delighted audiences throughout the area, including at Music Guild and Playcrafters.
Unfortunately, due to health issues, Greenwood is making “Silent Sky” her final show. Her often breezy, absurd roles (all grounded with a heart of gold) were always a treasure and she’ll be sorely missed on the Geneseo stage.
New looks at the sky
Gunderson (perhaps seeing a kindred spirit) gives Leavitt her due by connecting what her legacy led to at the close of “Silent Sky” – Hubble’s discoveries, the space telescope named in his honor, and many trips to the moon, Mars and beyond.
The timing of the RHP show could not have been better, opening the same week as the mind-boggling images shown from the James Webb Space Telescope, dazzling us all with spectacular edges of the universe never before seen.
While Richmond Hill has usually relied on mindless comedies and murder mysteries to attract patrons, “Silent Sky” reveals what also is so great about live theater – bringing us as close as possible (literally) to unforgettable characters worth discovering, and teaching us profound principles worth knowing.
They’re not dry facts to be gleaned from a textbook, but these great minds were inside real people who had families and dreams and loves and heartbreaks and life-altering challenges. “Silent Sky” shows us everything Henrietta had to deal with and overcome, and it didn’t even really show the full extent of her deafness (beyond using her hearing-assist device, only in her left ear).
This mesmerizing RHP production is chock full of stars, on and off stage. It should NOT be missed.
“Silent Sky” will continue Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with a final performance Sunday, July 24 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. Richmond Hill offers Assistive Listening Devices, which can be requested at the time that reservations are made.