United Players of Vancouver

Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson

When & Where 26 March – 18 April 2021 | Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery, Vancouver

Director Laura McLean Technical Director Leighton Taylor Producer Fran Burnside Lighting Design Mark Carter Set Design R. Todd Parker Costume Design Julie White Sound Design Nico Dicecco Stage Manager Jonathon Paterson

Cast Henrietta Leavitt - Jenna Hill, Margaret Leavitt - Rebecca deBoer, Peter Shaw - Karthik Kadam, Annie Cannon - Anna Bui, Williamina Fleming - Rhona McCallum Lichtenwald

Reviewer John Jane


Lauren Gunderson’s loose biographical play follows Henrietta Leavitt's career from her acceptance at the Harvard College Observatory to her death almost exactly a hundred years ago. Leavitt, along with Williamina Fleming and Annie Cannon has been attributed to having discovered several star systems. On her own, she has since been credited with developing the “period-luminosity relation,” a means for measuring distances in space.

Fortunately, the play doesn’t just explore fact-based scientific matters, but also, at least, it attempts to portray the subject’s human relationships. Alas, Gunderson has to rely on her imagination to provide the characters that define Leavitt not just as an aurally challenged workaholic, but a woman who was spiritually passionate and dedicated to family and close colleagues.

The play opens with a conversation between Henrietta and her sister Margaret with whom the playwright establishes as being a complicated relationship. Henrietta informs her family through Margaret that she has been offered a position with no pay at Harvard.

Not much is known about Henrietta’s family life or her personal liaisons, so Gunderson has created fictitious connections through Margaret Leavitt (Rebecca deBoer) and Peter Shaw (Karthik Kadam), a male colleague with whom Henrietta has a romantic involvement that never quite gets off the ground. Ironically, it’s these two characters that give the play weight. The letters that pass between Henrietta and Margaret and between Henrietta and Peter voiced as dialogue on stage give immediacy to the performances.

Winnipegger Jenna Hill, who bears a physical resemblance to a young Henrietta, turns in a brave and spirited reading of the serious and self-aware intellectual, but with an acute inability to read the room. While Ms. Hill is on stage for almost the entire run time, director Laura McLean presents Silent Sky as an ensemble piece. Under her direction, the cast brings integrity to the real-life portrayals and perception to the fictional characters.

Rhona McCallum Lichtenwald as the flinty Williamina Fleming delivers the play’s physical comedy. The real-life Fleming was Edward Pickering former house-keeper who legend believes was responsible for discovering the Horsehead Nebula. Anna Bui is commanding as Observatory manager Annie Cannon, showing both straightforward swagger and sensitivity.

Production designer Mark Carter’s inspired lighting is an intrinsic element of the production. R. Todd Parker’s functional set adapts equally as the Leavitt Wisconsin homestead and Observatory ‘engine room.’

Renowned American astrophysicist Edward Pickering is frequently referred to as the director of the Harvard College Observatory, though never actually seen. Pickering obviously had his justifications for preferring women in his team.

I found Silent Sky to be altogether too similar to United Players’ previous production (She Sells Sea Shells). Certainly, learning about the vexation women experienced in men taking credit for their work in the last century is worthwhile, but not always entertaining.