I first heard about the “computers” of the Harvard Observatory when I interviewed Dava Sobel before the 2017 Virginia Book Festival. She wrote a fascinating book called The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. Through it, she sought to shatter misconceptions and celebrate the women who mapped the stars in the early 1900s, transforming the science of astronomy. Not only are their stories being told in books and articles today, their voices are now being shared in theaters through a production called Silent Sky.
The play is an exquisitely woven drama by Lauren Gunderson, who was recognized by American Theatre Magazine in September 2019 as the most-produced American playwright of the 2019-2020 season. Gunderson’s talent as a playwright is remarkable, as shown in Silent Sky, which takes viewers into the life of Henrietta Leavitt (Laura C. Harris) as she embarks on a job with the Harvard Observatory.
I was excited about this play when news broke that it was coming to Ford’s Theatre. Silent Sky reunites a few creative and acting talents from last year’s breathtaking production of The Heiress. First, there’s director Seema Sueko, who is very finely attuned to bringing out the raw emotions of characters at a given moment. She’s also excellent at allowing all of the characters to shine, regardless of how brief their stage time is.
As in The Heiress, Laura C. Harris and Jonathan David Martin are brought back as lovers maneuvering through a tense relationship. The courtship between their Silent Sky characters has more auspicious beginnings, but becomes just as rocky down the road. Martin portrays Peter Shaw, who supervises Henrietta and longtime computers Annie Cannon (Nora Achrati) and Williamina Fleming (Holly Twyford).
I should mention that Silent Sky is described in Ford’s Theatre’s press materials as “a historical fiction play.” That is to say, Peter Shaw was not a real person. However, his character is intended to represent the prevailing thoughts of the early 1900s; that is, how society generally viewed the role of women as limited even as changes were starting to creep in, namely the vote.
The story delves into “what ifs” with Henrietta and Peter’s love story, but steers clear of painting Henrietta as lovesick or as a woman who needs a man to complete her life. Gunderson’s script captures the uncertainty and irony beautifully in several moments throughout the play. My favorite quote from Henrietta during the building courtship is when she blurts out, “We could be terrible together!”
It’s interesting that Peter Shaw is the only male character. There’s mention of two other men: Mr. Leavitt, Henrietta’s father, and Mr. Pickering, the head of the Harvard Observatory. I heard someone in the audience wondering what putting either of those characters physically into the play might have done. I think it would have created some redundancy. Having a primarily female cast serves to keep the central focus on the women and their accomplishments.
The remarkable set design is by Milagros Ponce de León. There are two levels, a wood-paneled lower level topped by a balcony, flanked by round staircases on each side. The staircases create an elliptical shape that calls to mind the bottom of a spaceship. It’s so fitting to keep spaceship imagery in the viewer’s mind, since the women’s cataloging of the stars from glass plates helped in future space research.
Above the balcony level, lights hang at various heights to represent the stars. Rui Rita’s lighting design is pivotal here for the moments when the stars light up the night sky. Lighting emphasizes the flashes of insight Henrietta gains as she studies why the stars she discovered fluctuate in brightness.
The bottom part of the set rotates to indicate whether the scene takes place at the Leavitt home, the Harvard Observatory, or Henrietta’s Boston rooms. Henrietta carries on a debate about a woman’s place in the world with her sister, Margaret (Emily Kester), perhaps more fiercely than the discussions she has at Harvard. I wasn’t expecting music to feature in the play, but Margaret looms on the side of the stage periodically and sings “For the Beauty of the Earth.”
Additionally, she reappears onstage to recite the letters she’s written to Henrietta. Sometimes the tone of the letters is rather jarring compared to what’s now the comforting routine of the observatory research. Henrietta bitingly tells Margaret, “I can’t play house with you.” Eventually, the events at home are too pressing for Henrietta to ignore them.
The best parts of the play occur whenever Laura C. Harris, Nora Achrati, and Holly Twyford are onstage together. Their characters comprised a small part of the so-called “Pickering’s harem,” the women who counted the stars on the glass plates at the observatory. They had such great discourse about the changing times and where they could find their place.
Annie Cannon begins as a bit of a taskmaster in supervising the women, but her ideas shift as Henrietta tells her to push forward for a better job title. Nora Achrati does not overplay Cannon’s development into a staunch women’s rights supporter, so that her character becomes quite endearing by the end as a firm friend of Henrietta’s.
Holly Twyford gets a number of the best lines as Williamina Fleming, who was formerly a housekeeper of Mr. Pickering. With a Scottish accent, Fleming describes the women’s job as “cleaning up the universe for men and making fun of them behind their backs.”
Silent Sky will close at Ford’s Theatre on February 23. If you’re seeing the play on or before February 16, you might want to attend the free Meet and Mingle at Succotash restaurant on 915 F Street NW. It’ll take place after the 2:00 p.m. performance on the 16th. It’s a perfect opportunity to discuss theatre and what you thought of the play with other Ford’s Theatre audience members, and to see members of the Silent Sky cast.
Ford’s Theatre is located at 511 10th St. NW in Washington, DC. Visit the box office, book online, or call (888) 616-0270 to purchase tickets. If you arrive at the theatre an hour before the performance, you should definitely head downstairs to look at the museum exhibits about the history of Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, and their legacy in American history.