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American Stage’s ‘Silent Sky’: A history lesson, Hallmark movie in one

Parts of it play like a romantic comedy, but you will learn a thing or two about the woman who mapped the universe. | Theater review
Benjamin Ismail, left, and Susan Maris star as Peter Shaw and Henrietta Leavitt in American Stage's "Silent Sky." [Joey Clay Photography]
Benjamin Ismail, left, and Susan Maris star as Peter Shaw and Henrietta Leavitt in American Stage's "Silent Sky." [Joey Clay Photography]
Published Dec. 6, 2019
Updated Dec. 6, 2019

Imagine buying a ticket to an empowering historical play and finding yourself in a Hallmark rom-com.

For the first hour-plus, that more or less encapsulates the experience of watching Silent Sky, Lauren Gunderson’s play running at American Stage through Dec. 22.

The driven, brilliant heroine caught between career and family? Check. A love that blooms awkwardly, unexpectedly, with a man she once saw as an adversary? Check. A dance-off to Coldplay as the curtain falls and credits roll? Yes, incredibly, that happens.

That it all happens in a play about a pioneering, turn-of-the-20th-century astronomer named Henrietta Leavitt is, shall we say, unexpected. You go in expecting Hidden Figures, and soon feel like you’re in A Christmas Prince. For a while, at least.

It’s not a terrible choice. The subject matter is dense — Leavitt discovered the relationship between luminosity and rate of pulsation in certain stars, giving astronomers a tool to measure their distance from Earth, which basically allowed us to map the entire universe. Gunderson’s script is bright and witty, Kristin Clippard’s direction brisk yet empathetic, making a play that could feel like a science lesson much more palatable to a 2019 audience.

Susan Maris plays the Radcliffe-educated astronomer with constant forward momentum, capturing her obsessive drive to know the universe — to know everything in the universe — even as she and her fellow female employees (Vickie Daignault as Annie Cannon and Karel Wright as Williamina Fleming) at the Harvard College Observatory are told they’re nothing more than a “harem” of human “computers” doing math for the men allowed to use the telescopes.

From left: Karel Wright as Williamina Fleming, Susan Maris as Henrietta Leavitt and Vickie Daignault as Annie Cannon star in American Stage's "Silent Sky." [Joey Clay Photography]

One of these men is Peter Shaw, played with nervous snorts and stammers by Benjamin Ismail. Over the first act, Shaw falls for Leavitt, who — in the grand tradition of Hallmark rom-coms — is much too busy to think about love, until one day, for reasons never fully explained, it shows up at her doorstep.

A few months ago, American Stage put up Fun Home, based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel — namesake of the so-called Bechdel test, which qualifies the representation of women in media by measuring how much of a work features women talking about something other than a man.

Silent Sky presents an interesting Bechdel test case. The cast is mostly women, and they do talk about astronomy. But in the first act, especially, they also talk an awful lot about men. Leavitt and her sister Margaret (Kate Berg) talk about their father. The women in the office talk about the men in charge of the observatory. Daignault and Wright’s characters needle Leavitt about Shaw’s barely hidden crush.

Some of this is unavoidable, given America’s sexism issues in the early 1900s. You can’t tell the story of a woman overcoming gender bias without mentioning the other gender in the room.

But why, in a play about a woman working for men who don’t see her as an equal, must the heroine fall for one of these men? Even during their flickering of a courtship, Shaw barely respects Leavitt’s ambition to pursue her own work, and later all but disregards her findings. This is the meet-cute love we should root for?

Thankfully, the shorter second act turns it around. Here we see Margaret, Cannon and Fleming reorganizing their lives to support Leavitt’s research as her health starts to fade. We see Leavitt and her sister discuss faith, identity and the meaning of knowledge. As more scientists learn from and adapt Leavitt’s research, even Shaw’s attitude goes from the patronizing “I am very proud of you” to “I am so proud to know you.”

The play goes out of its way to connect Leavitt’s research to the women’s rights movement (“If we can organize the sky, we can organize our minds to choose our own future,” Cannon says in her suffragette’s sash), but draws a clear and direct line to our understanding of the universe, from atomic power to the Hubble telescope. It’s made clear why she was considered for a posthumous Nobel prize. The theater fills with stars and Hubble images (nice set and lighting design by Steve Mitchell and Lynne Chase, respectively) as it swells to a genuinely stirring finale.

And yes, the actors do dance off to Coldplay at the end. But it actually feels right, because Silent Sky does have a truly happy ending. All the great Hallmark rom-coms do.

SILENT SKY

$44-$54. Through Dec. 22. 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 823-7529. For showtimes, visit americanstage.org.

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