Curtain Critic: Silent Sky a winning tribute to the forgotten women in astronomy

Tori Grace Hines and Veronika Duerr in ATC’s Silent Sky. (Courtesy of Tim Fuller)

Imagine receiving a personalized letter inviting you to work for Harvard, studying stars and making discoveries that will help humanity recontextualize its understanding of the universe.

Now imagine spending every last penny of your dowry relocating yourself for this new job — only to be told you’re working in a harem.

Luckily, Henrietta Swan Leavitt wasn’t an actual concubine, but she and her fellow scientists who worked for Harvard near the turn of the century were jokingly referred to as “Pickering’s Harem,” as they were an all-women team who worked for Edward Charles Pickering, the director of the Harvard College Observatory’s director.

So begins “Silent Sky,” Arizona Theatre Company’s newest production, which celebrates Leavitt’s life, from the beginning of her time at Harvard Observatory until her death. Her discoveries “opened the door to a dramatic enlargement in the size of the known universe,” according to the Famous Scientists website.

Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s script for “Silent Sky” is a cleverly-written story stuffed with witty lines and likable characters — most of whom were based on real-life people. Two of Leavitt’s coworkers in the so-called harem are Williamina Fleming (Amelia White) and Annie Cannon (Inger Tudor). 

As always, the Herberger’s center stage is captivating under ATC’s creative stage design. This time Jo Winiarski is in charge of shaping the stage to match the story. Upon Jeffrey Teeter’s giant projections, stars, clouds and celestial bodies sparkle and shift, adding a mystical undertone to the science at the core of the story.

While Veronika Duer’s Henrietta is an engaging and funny lead, her line deliveries sometimes come across as strange when her voice warbles and undulates in exaggerated tones. Arthur Shaw, Pickering’s buttoned-up assistant and Henrietta’s ardent suitor, is sweet and effective as a humorous, ardent admirer. Nardeep Khurmi plays him with a clear voice and funny posture; he and Duer match each other perfectly, both in physical humor and in innocent romantic chemistry.

Though the cast is small, they shine as brightly as the stars their characters spend whole lifetimes analyzing and admiring. ATC’s “Silent Sky” is a worthy tribute to hidden female figures in the annals of history — though rather than being shoved to the sidelines as the women so often were on their lifetimes, this production puts them in the spotlight in a sweet, thoughtful, scientific performance.

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