Produced by: City Lights Theatre Company
Directed by: Mark Anderson Phillips
Featuring: Maria Giere Marquis, Jessica Whittemore, George Psarras, April Green, Karen DeHart
When: May 16-June 16, 2019
Where: City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose
Tickets: $23-$44. Visit cltc.org or call 408-295-4200.
shines brightly at City Lights
The stars aligned for City Lights Theater Company’s wonderful production of Lauren Gunderson’s brilliant “Silent Sky.”
One of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best directors, Mark Anderson Phillips, and a powerful cast make real the heart and the meaning of Gunderson’s script, which is the story of astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt.
In the 1890s, Leavitt, a Radcliffe graduate, went to work at the Harvard Observatory, where she was frustrated because she wasn’t allowed to directly use the big refractor telescope. That was men’s work in those days.
Instead, she was put to work examining photographic plates from telescopes, along with other women “computers.” Two of those women, who are also part of this play, Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon, had already invented methods for classifying stars.
Leavitt dove obsessively into her work, and invented a method for using the measurement of time and luminosity of Cepheids (pulsating stars) for determining their distance from Earth. She was able to prove that the Milky Way was not the extent of the universe, as astronomers had thought for years.
The genius of this production is that it helps the audience feel all the emotional connections Leavitt has — with her sister Margaret, with her co-workers, and — especially — with the stars.
The three actors who share the most telling emotional moments — Maria Giere Marquis as Leavitt, Jessica Whittemore as Margaret, and George Psarras as Peter Shaw — are absolutely brilliant.
When Leavitt and Margaret argue about Leavitt leaving home and family to study the stars, we read everything there is to say on their faces. Magnificent. When Leavitt and Shaw quite obviously but delicately fall in love, it is a touching pas de deaux of yearning.
And while April Green as Annie Jump Cannon and Karen DeHart as Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming don’t carry as much obvious emotional weight, they are still solidly important to this story, and help carry it. DeHart gets a lot of laughs with admirable comic timing and physicality.
On opening night, the audience was fully seduced by this story of the remarkable and important astronomer and what she gave up — love and family, especially — to accomplish so much in a career that was slowed by old-fashioned men.
As Gunderson’s beautiful script unscrolls, the audience laughed, sighed — gasped! — and cried. One woman journalist and writer said afterward that she was afraid to talk with the cast at the after party for fear she would break out into “ugly crying.”
In the play, Henrietta tells Williamina she has issues with science. "The whole of it?" Williamina asks.
"We do not appear to know where we are. Astronomically," Henrietta says. "Which is shocking. ... We've been looking up for millennia and we don't know how far away those stars are? We don't know if the Milky Way is the universe? That's just unacceptable."
"You're fun," Williamina responds. "But here's some perspective. I was Pickering's housekeeper before he brought me here. So we're a lot of things, but at present we are cleaning up the universe for the men. And making fun of them behind their backs. It's worked for centuries."
The play begins with Leavitt begging Margaret to talk their father into giving her her dowry, so she will have it to live on as she goes to work at Harvard. Marquis and Whittemore are immensely powerful in their performances, completely committed to what they are doing, and making every emotion palpable on their faces.
Psarras is quite funny as the manager of the computers — the “girls” — and obviously is smitten immediately with Leavitt. After a year or so, she confesses that she thinks he has a “good gait.” It’s cute, but it’s more than just comedy.
DeHart is an audience favorite for her witty lines, and completely charming way with physicality. Timing is everything with comedy, and DeHart and the rest of the cast are all spot-on.
Green, statuesque, stern, and beautiful, is solid as the lead computer, and then fully wins the audience with her effort to win women the vote.
Anderson Phillips, as an actor, is known for total commitment to every role he plays. When he steps on stage, he leaves himself behind, and becomes whatever his role demands him to be. He has helped the five fine actors of this cast to do the same. Bravura work.
Really, don’t miss this show, because it is rare we get to see such fine acting.
Anna Chase’s costumes were beautiful and fully reflective of the turn of the centuries.
Ron Gasparinetti’s set was very clever, in part. Try to sit house left to get the best view. The set at stage left, for reasons I could not quite divine, blocks part of the view of some of the set at stage right, and it is definitely worth seeing.
I like Psarras’s sound design, Joseph Hidde’s lighting design, and Garland Thompson’s projections. Stage manager Michelle Singh and the entire production team did yeoman work.