It seems inconceivable, but it’s been less than a century since humans realized that the universe went beyond the boundaries of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. As late as 1918, astronomers were still convinced that nothing lay beyond the glow-white spill of stars visible to the naked eye.
‘SILENT SKY’ Highly Recommended When: Through April 30 Where: First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook Tickets: $26-$39, Info:firstfolio.org
Or at least most of them did. Henrietta Swan Leavitt believed otherwise – and fervently so. And although she was never allowed near a telescope, it was Leavitt’s groundbreaking work measuring the luminosity of stars, which allowed Edwin Hubble to prove in 1919 that the universe went infinitely further than what mortals could actually see.
In Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky,” Leavitt’s story unfolds with a beauty and complexity worthy of the skies she mapped. Directed by Melanie Keller for Oak Brook’s First Folio Theatre, the production’s five-person ensemble creates a gorgeous, inspiring drama that manages to convey both the vastness of an endless world and the subtlest of human emotions.
There’s no question but that Leavitt’s biography is filled with fascinating science. But Gunderson also depicts the politics and social mores of Leavitt’s world. Scientists and suffragists work side by side in “Silent Sky.” Both are up against incalculable odds. Both ultimately triumph, but in Leavitt’s case, the victory was bittersweet.
After Leavitt died, Hubble said she deserved a Nobel Prize. While she was alive, Leavitt was barred from exploring the new worlds revealed by her calculations. “I did all the work and they won’t let me near it,” she laments in “Silent Sky,” after her work on “Cepheid” stars opened doors to corners of the universe that had been previously locked away.
Educated at Radcliffe and raised in Wisconsin, Leavitt was hired by the Harvard Observatory in 1893. She was part of the “harem” of women (so-called by their male supervisors) charged with calculating numerical values for the brightness of stars mapped by men on glass plates. At the time, women were barred from using Harvard’s telescopes. Like the “human computers” of NASA depicted in the Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures,” Leavitt’s math was immeasurably important to the advancement of science.
“Silent Sky” is anchored by Cassandra Bissell, who portrays Leavitt as a woman of ferocious intelligence and perpetually wonderstruck imagination. Bissell’s Leavitt doesn’t seem to grasp the restrictions that women of her era faced. She bristles when she’s told she isn’t an astronomer. Her eyebrows skyrocket in disbelief when she’s told she isn’t allowed near the telescope. In all, Bissell captures the stubbornness of a woman who refuses to accept the status quo, no matter how entrenched.
“I have fundamental problems with the state of human knowledge. Who are we? Why are we? Where are we?” Leavitt demands of her more domestically-inclined sister Margaret (Hayley Rice, showing that assertive, opinionated, hyper-intelligent women run in the Leavitt family). Margaret’s exasperated response (“Wisconsin!”) earns an epic eye-role from her sister.
Leavitt left Wisconsin for Harvard Observatory in 1903 and worked there through 1921. Gunderson telescopes events somewhat for dramatic purposes, but shows that period as a source of huge excitement and frustration for Leavitt. Working alongside Annie Cannon (Jeannie Affelder) and Williamina Fleming (Belinda Bremner), Leavitt was at the epicenter of astronomical research.
Gunderson’s dialogue makes each woman distinctive, and Keller’s cast does them justice. Affelder depicts Cannon as a woman who suffers no fools, and her no-nonsense effect is formidably intimidating. As Williamina, Bremner is a quick-to-laugh spitfire and a loquacious contrast for Cannon’s stern, taciturn demeanor. Their personalities are 180 degrees apart, but they’re linked by the unalloyed driving curiosity of true scientists and the analytic intelligence required to harness that drive.
Try as he might, their supervisor Peter Shaw (Wardell Julius Clark, nicely capturing the awe and exasperation of a man charged with controlling women who defy being controlled) can’t quite keep the three in line.
Gunderson does a fine job explaining the science behind Leavitt’s discoveries without getting bogged down in technical jargon or overwhelming detail. Leavitt’s breakthrough moment is closely tied to her sister Margaret’s musical prowess (beautifully orchestrated by sound designer Christopher Kriz). Its explanation is as accessible as a simple, well-crafted melody.
Scenic designer Angela Weber Miller and lighting designer Michael McNamara have created a breathtaking glimpse of the cosmos in the high-ceilinged Gothic chapel where First Folio performs. At one point in “Silent Sky,” Leavitt ponders that nothing every truly leaves the universe. Star dust, heat, light, energy, humans – we’re all just constantly shifting and switching forms. When you ponder that under the galaxies rendered by Miller and McNamara, it’s impossible not to feel small. And part of something huge and sublime.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.