Saturday, February 24, 2024

"Silent Sky" at Theatre in the Round

One of America's most produced playwrights of recent years, Lauren Gunderson is known for writing plays about women in history and/or science that are modern, feminist, funny, and moving. Silent Sky is one of her most popular - it's now receiving it's third #TCTheater production (I love it, but I'd also love to see The Half-Life of Marie Curie, or Emilie: La Marquise du Ch√Ętelet Defends Her Life Tonight, or any and all of her other plays). Silent Sky features little known astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, who figured out a way to measure the universe, laying the foundation for more well-known (male) scientists like Edwin Hubble. In Gunderson's hands, Henrietta is a very real and relatable woman, who wants to do work that matters, and maybe also have a little fun along the way. With a strong five-person cast and elegantly simple design, Theatre in the Round's Silent Sky is entertaining and inspirational. Who knew science could be so dramatic and emotional?! (Lauren Gunderson, that's who.)

The play opens when Henrietta is offered a job at Harvard working for Edward Charles Pickering as one of the human computers, all of whom were women (see also the movie Hidden Figures, another example of the "harem effect" in science). She leaves her beloved sister to do this work that became her life, sometimes to the detriment of her relationship with the family she left behind. Along with her fellow computers she documented and classified the stars. But she wanted more, and the discovery of a pattern lead her to her great discovery that the distance to each star can be calculated (how do you measure a year? measure in light). The play also includes an obligatory but sweet romance with her colleague, but in the end, her work is what fulfilled her, and what she's remembered for.*

The play provides a picture of who Henrietta was, even if the timelines are a bit collapsed and unclear. There are a few references to "years" passing, but nothing to really anchor us in history. Based on my impression of the play I thought she died in her 20s or 30s, but in reality she was 53, still way too young of course (one could say she studied stars "like she was running out of time," because she was). But no matter, it's not a documentary. What Silent Sky does is convey Henrietta's wonder at the world and her fierce determination to answer the question of where we are in the universe.*

Eva Gemlo as Henrietta (photo by Tom Taintor)
No one better to embody that combination of wonder and fierce determination than Eva Gemlo. This is not her first time playing a Lauren Gunderson heroine. Just before the pandemic, she was Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer, in DalekoArts' production of Ada and the Engine, and recently she was Elizabeth Bennet Darcy in Lyric Arts' The Wickhams, second in the delightful Christmas at Pemberley trilogy co-written by Gunderson and Margo Melcon. As our Henri, Eva is open and curious, strong and vulnerable, a true heroine to root for and follow on her journey. Ben Qualley (the Mr. Darcy to Eva's Lizzie) is Henri's charmingly awkward colleague/love interest, Clare Rolinger is her sweet and steadfast sister, and Wini Froelich and Rachel Postle are her fellow computers, forming a delightful trio.

Gretchen Weinrich directs the show in-the-round on a sparse and open set, with a tone of joy and discovery. There are no set pieces to dodge as you make your way across the stage to your seat, but you will be walking on the cosmos painted on the floor. Three tables, with a few period office supplies, are brought onstage when the computers work, but the general openness of the design feels right for this play about the vastness of the universe. The lighting design adds to that feeling, with twinkling star lights on all sides. Characters are dressed in the concervative long skirts and fitted jackets of the early 20th Century, and even get a costume change at intermission. (Set design by Sadie Ward, lighting design by Peter W. Mitchell, and costume design Colleen O'Dell.)

I've always felt that science and religion are flip sides of the same coin, an idea the play also explores in Henri's relationship with her (unseen) minister father and church-going sister. Both women have deeply held beliefs, one in science, one in religion. But maybe their beliefs aren't that different; both are a search for truth and an attempt to know the unknowable.*

Silent Sky celebrates science, history, romance, female friendship, sisterhood, and the stars. What's not to love?! See it now through March 17 at Theatre in the Round, the oldest theater in Minneapolis (and maybe soon the oldest theater in Minnesota with the closure of Old Log Theatre - can I get a fact check on that?).

*Some text borrowed from what I wrote about Lyric Arts' 2017 production.