Written by Alina Mae Wilson
The Costa Mesa Playhouse presents Silent Sky. A historical fiction by Lauren Gunderson, Silent Sky imagines the personal and professional life of iconic American astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. Stacked with a charming cast and a starry background that evokes feelings of solemnity, Silent Sky should be considered a competent story but not necessarily an entertaining one.
The play begins with Henrietta Leavitt departing from her family home to work as a “computer” for renowned scientist Dr. Pickering (who is mentioned in the play by name only). Upon arriving at her new job, she quickly learns that her department is staffed entirely by women. What follows is a thoughtful imagining of Leavitt’s impassioned pursuit of equality, a brief sprinkling of romance, and the truth about where we are in the universe.
All of the actors in Silent Sky give strong performances. In the role of Leavitt, we have Kendall Sinclair, who is both believable and enjoyable, as the lead. The introspective moments we see with her gazing up at the night sky and pondering our place in the galaxy are somehow tender and relatable. Special mention of the night goes to Jennifer Walquist, who is both hilarious and endearing as Scottish scientist Williamina Fleming. Most of her lines are delivered with the perfect touch of comedy without being overly boisterous or playing up the Scottish accent for meaningless laughs. It is indeed fortunate that we have the occasional comedic performances in this show because otherwise, Silent Sky would easily slip from being merely slow to frustratingly dull. And thus, we arrive at my primary grievance with this play.
Henrietta Leavitt’s primary challenge in this show seems to be the way that she is treated by the male academics who lord their authority over her and deny her the right to utilize tools that would help her advance in her career and gain herself some credibility in the field. The way women are treated by men and denied access to the same benefits afforded their male counterparts is mentioned frequently. There seems to be quite a bit of tell-not-showing going on here. And while it’s certainly understandable how that could happen with a cast of five, it doesn’t seem to illustrate the story’s point to have the only man Leavitt encounters onstage to be utterly smitten with her. What results is a lot of time spent watching talented actors play characters sitting in the same room for ¾ of the show and talking about how difficult it is for Leavitt to gain respect as an astronomer. In short, it is often too slow for my taste.
Silent Sky is well performed, nicely staged, and has a good heart behind it. But while professional isolation and discussion of theory might have been a prominent part of Henrietta Leavitt’s life, it does not make for a very stimulating way to spend two hours.