There’s a certain whimsy to the fact that “Silent Sky,” the delicate and meaningful new Fresno City College production about a prominent and mostly unknown woman astronomer, takes place inside at night.
Yes, there are a few matinees in the Studio Theatre, but the majority of performances are staged when the stars are just out of sight above us. When you’re sitting in the audience, it’s tempting to gaze skyward and think of those myriad bright points of light just beyond the ceiling. Many of us spend most of our time under roofs, both night and day, so it’s a chance for the theater to make us look at the world in a slightly different way.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson conceives of “Silent Sky” as a thoughtful and poetic homage to Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a trailblazing astronomer who died in 1921. She was mostly forgotten to history, or at least to popular culture, which isn’t all that uncommon for scientists. (I just finished reading a fascinating book about Alexander Von Humboldt, who essentially invented the idea of ecology — and predicted global warming — and who during much of the 19th Century was the most famous man in the world after Napoleon. He’s barely remembered today.)
But Leavitt faced special challenges because she was a woman in a male-dominated field.
She and the women she worked with at the Harvard Observatory were called “computers,” meaning they were trusted with clerical-type duties that involved the tedious work of cataloging stars by peering all day at photographs of the night sky taken on glass plates. Meanwhile, the men in the office got to use the telescope.
Leavitt took her own initiative, however, and she figured out a pattern among those stars that had to do with their relative brightness. She set the groundwork for other astronomers to definitively state that the universe is much larger than was thought at the time. The distance to other stars became easy to calculate. Leavitt’s breakthrough eventually gave us a much better idea of how our little planet fits into the larger picture of the cosmos, in many ways a game-changing revelation. In that sense, the play becomes as much an exploration of philosophical issues as scientific ones.
Director Janine Christl crafts a simple but nuanced production, with Christina McCollam-Martinez’s basic set — a few period furniture pieces, a large table, a piano, and a porchlike wooden railing that gives the characters a chance to gaze at the night sky — feeling warm and homey. The locations transition easily from her family home, where Henrietta (a poised and thoughtful Jessica Knotts) has a sister, Margaret (Marikah Christine Leal, in a restrained and moving performance), with whom she’s especially close, to Boston, where the Radcliffe-educated Henrietta manages to break into the astronomy field.
Gunderson’s style is highly theatrical in nature, with scenes slipping in and out of realism, and Christl’s staging and McCollam-Martinez’s gorgeous lighting design in the intimate Studio Theatre give the proceedings an intensity and solemnity suitable to the subject matter. A budding romance between Henrietta and her less-than-suave boss, Peter (Quincy Maxwell in a performance that starts out amusingly twitchy and snorting but grows into something deeper), feels overwrought and clunky in terms of the script during the first act. It crowds out other more interesting issues. (I wrote in my notebook: “I want to know more about the stars!”) But in the second act, the romance gets more complicated, and the play loses some of that sense of having an obligatory love story thrown in.
Instead, we are immersed in the idea of women’s solidarity in the workplace (Megan DeWitt and Aleah Muniz both sparkle as Henriett’s co-workers and advocates) and the challenges of trying to break into male-dominated professions. The play has its ponderous moments and never feels quite as sure-footed in terms of its writing as it wants to be, but one way it succeeds is as a touching, feel-good, introspective examination of the absurdity of gender inequality.
There’s a deeper emotional level as well, with mortality and scientific exploration as key themes. One of Henrietta’s great fears is that death will come before “the answers are known.” In this way, “Silent Sky” becomes a musing on the relentless desire for humans to learn and progress, to build upon that which came before us, and to try to leave this world a little better than when we entered it. Such goals are impossibly grand, of course, because there’s always something more to learn.
It turns out, though, that Henrietta Leavitt — proud astronomer — added to the storehouse of human knowledge in a significant way. In the panoply of the night sky, she added her own kind of light.
“Silent Sky,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17, and Saturday, Nov. 18; Fresno City College Studio Theatre. $14 general, $12 students and seniors.
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