By John Lyle Belden
A century ago, a woman helped revolutionize astronomy, a perfect subject to inaugurate Indy’s new woman-centered theater company, Summit Performance Indianapolis.
“Silent Sky,” by Lauren Gunderson, playing through July 22 on the Basile Stage of the Phoenix Theatre, is the story of Henrietta Leavitt, who, shortly before 1900, joined a team of women working for the astronomy professor at Harvard College (now University) near Boston. Acting as the “Hidden Figures” of their day, Dr. Pickering (who we never meet in this play) calls these women “Computers,” a word not yet attached to the modern device, but still apt. More crudely, they were also referred to as “Pickering’s Harem.”
Though women weren’t allowed to actually use the state-of-the-art telescope, Leavitt (Carrie Ann Schlatter) finds excitement in identifying stars and celestial phenomena on its glass photographic plates. She joins no-nonsense team leader Annie Cannon (Molly Garner) and feisty Scottish immigrant Williamina Fleming (Gigi Jennewien), Pickering’s former housekeeper and his first Computer. They are supervised by the professor’s assistant, Peter Shaw (Adam Tran), a man whose heart really isn’t in his work – until he meets Henrietta.
But the ties of family beckon, as Henrietta’s dear sister Margaret (Devan Mathias) calls her to their father’s Wisconsin home when he falls ill. Even there, she continues her work, seeking to make sense and pattern of the varying brightness in the stars she studies. Margaret tires of her sister’s obsession, and finds solace at her piano – what happens next, as the saying goes, is history.
Produced by Summit founder and Artistic Director Lauren Briggeman and directed by Lori Wolter Hudson, the play makes excellent use of the Basile black-box stage, with audience on three sides, as well as projected starscapes. The props are few but beautiful, including a very functional large desk and Henrietta’s period-appropriate hearing aid. Performances are superb, especially Schlatter expressing Henrietta’s passions and regrets, and Mathias showing Margaret’s tested but true sisterly love. Garner entertainingly transforms from dour to power as a budding feminist. Jennewien is ever the kind mother figure. Tran doesn’t allow his performance to slide into buffoonery, but he is definitely not the smartest “man” in the room.
This sweet drama explores the personal cost of ambition, as well as the struggle to overcome systems set against you. As Henrietta herself says in the play, “Life is about getting appropriately upset.”
Learn about and celebrate the woman who “measured the universe.” Note that the Phoenix is now at 705 N. Illinois St., and curtain times on this stage are 7:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. Sundays, a half-hour off the mainstage times. For info and tickets visit www.summitperformanceindy.com or www.phoenixtheatre.org.