Sky by Lauren Gunderson tells the (more or less) true story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, the astronomer who, in 1908, provided the first standard for measuring distances to stars. The Little Theatre of Virginia Beach’s production, directed by Nancy Bloom, is an utter delight well worth seeing.
The play opens with Henrietta (Monica Wolfkill) and her sister Margaret (Natasha Gavin) in a field, gazing at the stars and discussing everything from Henrietta’s upcoming work at the Harvard College Observatory to Margaret’s imminent engagement, setting up the events of the play. Wolfkill and Gavin provide excellent energy to start the show, but this first scene does portend my only real criticism of the show. More on this later.
After this scene we move to the observatory, where we meet the rest of the cast. As Henrietta arrives she is met by Peter Shaw (Steven Meeks), apprentice to the astronomer Edward Charles Pickering and later her love interest. In real life, Shaw did not exist. Gunderson seems to have created him as a stand in for the men of that era and also to provide some romantic tension to the plot.
We then meet Henrietta’s fellow human computers (who did actually exist), Annie Cannon (Lizzie Martingayle) and Williamina Fleming (Pam Good). Their job is to catalog stars from photographic plates provided by the observatory’s telescope (one of the most advanced in the world at the time), which they as women are not allowed to operate themselves.
From here, time moves swiftly as we experience several years in just a few moments. Stars are cataloged, letters are exchanged, and a romance begins to bud. Henrietta discovers that a class of pulsing stars known as Cepheids are far more abundant than previously thought and begins studying them on her own time. Eventually family obligations force Henrietta back to Wisconsin, where she continues her work. She finally discovers what is now known as Leavitt’s Law while listening to Margaret composing at the piano. Gavin does actually play the piano here, which, together with Wolfkill’s passionate delivery, provides a really nice moment. The second act covers Henrietta’s return to Harvard, eventual illness, and death.
The costume design (Lisa Bobotas) is period appropriate and supports the action well. Prop design (Donna Lawheed) is particularly notable for the photographic plates, (one of which is dropped and shatters during the show). I didn’t get too close a look, but they appeared pretty detailed from where I was sitting.
The scenic design (Alex Mason) is perfect. The set is split into two main playing areas. Stage right and center is the observatory, while stage left is Leavitt’s home in Wisconsin for first act and her home in Boston for the second. The stage left side is well designed, but it’s the observatory that is really quite stellar. The domed roof is constructed from scrim fabric, allowing for a particular lighting effect that is (dare I say) out of this world. At several points in the play, the stage goes dark to reveal a star-scape that reaches from the floor to the rafters. It is an extremely lovely and well-designed effect. This is easily the highlight of the lighting design (also Alex Mason). Overall the textures created through lighting are lovely and appropriate to the settings. My only real qualm is that everything felt a little too dark. A few of the scenes take place outdoors at night, and it is understandable that the design attempts to approximate moonlight (quite successfully, I might add). The only problem is that the audience can’t really see the actors in these scenes. At other times there is a frankly inexplicable lack of light. For example, there is a scene near the start of the show where the Leavitt sisters are writing letters back and forth, but Gavin’s Margaret is in total darkness.
Where Silent Sky really shines is the acting. This is very much an ensemble piece and it is impossible to pick any sort of stand out performance. The actors all bring passion and subtlety to their performances and Bloom’s direction makes excellent use of the actors’ abilities and apparently natural chemistry.
It isn’t often that I really lose myself in a play, but between the beautiful script and superb acting and direction, I lost myself in this one. Go see it!
Silent Sky runs through February 10, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM and Sundays at 2:30 PM. LTVB seems to have developed a habit of selling out their shows, so don’t wait too long to get your tickets!