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The Play Goer: Silent Sky

Colonial Players unleashes female star power past and present
photo courtesy of The Colonial Players, Inc. / Colburn Images/ ­Henrietta Leavitt, left (Emilie Zelle Holmstock), discovered how to measure the distance between Earth and the stars despite the Harvard telescope being off-limits to her as a woman in the late 1800s. As her science career grows, she is plagued by guilt for leaving home and her sister Margaret, (Robin Schwartz), to deal with the family’s troubles.
      Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky is a humorous, heartwarming and thought-provoking play about ­Henrietta Leavitt, an astronomer at the Harvard Observatory in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
      Leavitt figured out how to measure the distance between Earth and the stars despite not being able to touch the famous Harvard telescope because she was a woman. At Colonial Players, Gunderson’s play receives a respectable treatment, with Emilie Zelle Holmstock offering an interpretation of Leavitt that is appropriately determined yet colored by the conflict of being a female genius in a male-dominated world. 
      It’s a shame that so many female geniuses fell into the shadows of history so that their male counterparts could take the credit for their discoveries. But it’s a blessing that works as literate and involving as Gunderson’s shine the starlight on these world-changers. It’s also a blessing that Colonial Players is willing to roll the theatrical dice on a show that most people have not heard of, though one that deserves attention.
      Director Gwen Morton does a nice job utilizing Colonial’s in-the-round space to tell a story that moves variously between Leavitt’s home in Wisconsin, the Harvard Observatory and offices, an ocean liner and her home in Cambridge. Eric Hufford’s 360-degree projections of the universe and the glass plates that the women computers used to track the stars add just enough to our understanding of the complexity of this work without diminishing the humanity of the story.
      Gunderson’s focus on Leavitt’s emotional tug-of-war between her avocation, her family and her romantic life — at a time when women were not expected or even allowed to be anything but wives — could have devolved into a familiar soap opera. Instead, thanks to her skillful writing and Holmstock’s deft performance, we are treated to a character whose realism overcomes any poetic license needed to fit the story into a compact two hours.
      Henrietta’s first meeting at the observatory brings her to Peter Shaw, an assistant who represents the male-centric attitude of the times but also thaws into a potential love interest. Pointing out how ridiculous it is that women are not allowed to use the telescope, she notes to Shaw that she is a graduate of Radcliffe, which is, as she proudly pronounces, “basically Harvard in skirts.” With this kind of natural humor in Gunderson’s play, it’s a shame that Morton allows Tyler ­Heroux to give Shaw such a physically cartoonish characterization, especially in an atmosphere of such intelligence. Fortunately, he later morphs into a more mature character who we can believe may be worthy of Henrietta’s affection.
      Henrietta’s two colleagues at the observatory — Shannon Benil as Annie Cannon and Beth Terranova as Williamina Fleming — provide the second and third legs of a stool that, with Holmstock, solidly anchor this production. Benil’s Cannon brings a steady influence, including a fine interpretation of the determination with which a woman in science would become a part of the suffragist movement. Terranova’s Fleming is a tart-tongued Scot whose barbs about the boys being in charge pepper the evening with humor even as we are impressed by her character’s serious genius.
       Testing Henrietta’s resolve as a professional is Shaw’s blossoming romantic interest and her guilt over leaving her sister, Margaret (Robin Schwartz), back in Wisconsin to deal with the family’s troubles. The play marks the passage of time via letters between Henrietta and her sister, whose dreams of composing a symphony open the door through which the partially deaf Henrietta is able to solve the mysteries of the universe.
       Holmstock’s closing monologue, in which she exclaims of star studies, “there’s a reason we measure it all … in light,” would be touching and effective even without the accompanying light show. With it, it is a stellar finish to an overall stirring production.
      Set design, Heather Quinn. Costumes, Carrie Brady. Lighting design, Ernie Morton. Floor and set painting, Heather Quinn and Laurie Nolan.
       About two hours with one intermission. ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm, thru Feb. 2. The Colonial Players, Annapolis, $23 w/discounts, rsvp: A post-show forum January 20 features Dr. David DeVorkin of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum discussing Leavitt’s work.