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Review: 'Silent Sky' is a passionate cosmic search

“Silent Sky” is brilliant with passionate ambition, the true narrative of a woman’s driving need to understand the universe and to find her own place in that cosmos.

Lauren Gunderson’s play about women astronomers at the turn of the century opened last weekend at the Collaborative Theatre Project in Medford. Susan Aversa-Orrego directs.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon and Williamina Paton Stephens Fleming are computers, those who count, classify, calculate, record and report stars. The women wonder at the universe and know their work has higher purpose. To the men of the academy, however, including Edward Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, they are merely “Pickering’s women.” Henrietta won’t stand for it, and it is her voice and vision that drives the narrative.

The stars assemble in some unknown array, endlessly indexed and cataloged by women who are forbidden by academic and scientific tradition to do more. They pore over photographic glass plates, an infinitesimal, microscopic window of the sky, counting and describing what they see in mind-numbing detail. They are not permitted to view the sky through a telescope. The women are not allowed to see into the universe, a domain ruled by men, and can only view it by proxy.

Leavitt, Cannon and Fleming were real women, astronomers who lived and worked at Harvard at the turn of the century. They made significant astronomical contributions, yet in early years their work was marginalized, unrecognized and unrewarded. Played respectively by Brianna Gowland, Caitlyn Olson and Judith Rosen, these talented performers curb their 21st-century brash and neatly fit into that earlier time and place without sacrificing strength of character and sense of worth.

In “Silent Sky,” Gowland as Henrietta struggles with the issues and problems familiar to women even today, the difficulty of finding a balance for self and family, love and work. She is caught between responsibilities to others and the excitement of astronomic discovery. Henrietta’s is that passionate plea to see more, to know more. She understands that there is more but is all too aware of the era’s boundaries and limits. Henrietta struggles, too, as Peter Shaw, played by David Alonso Rodriguez, inserts a #metoo moment when he focuses his attentions on his subordinate, Henrietta.

Gowland plays this tension well, shifting between worlds.

Jessi Shieman is Henrietta’s sister, Margaret, and presses Henrietta to stay home and give up the work. Shieman does so beautifully, with a caring voice, and finds the freedom to compose a symphony that echoes the cosmos.

Change is a constant theme in “Silent Sky,” and the meaning of the word shifts and re-forms throughout the play. Olson plays Annie Cannon’s staunch professionalism with controlled intensity and bursts forth with fevered excitement when women get the vote. It seems everything in the world is changing, from bloomers and bicycles to the ordered mapping of stars in the sky, no longer silent but brilliant with the secrets of the universe.

“Silent Sky’s” set design, lighting and projection are outstanding, with the stage floor a shower of stars, galaxies and supernovas, reflected also in the celestial images projected onto window frames of the universe, the backdrop of the set. Music is also exceptional with an original score by Brittany Reha based on three simple notes that resonate and resound in the mind and heavens — that sky, no longer silent but pulsing with light.

We last saw Gunderson’s work in 2018 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where “The Book of Will” was a riotous, creative exploration of the written word and the importance of preserving performance. While the female roles were robust and outspoken in “The Book of Will,” in some ways that play diverged from Gunderson’s more typical works that focus on women and science.

“My favorite thing to do with history is to take known or ill-known characters and make them feel like they’re contemporary, that they are dealing with what we’re dealing with,” Gunderson said in an interview last year. “They love how we love, handle loss the way we do. Human beings don’t change that much over the centuries. Our technologies do, but we don’t.”

Gunderson’s comments are particularly appropriate to “Silent Sky.”

“Silent Sky” continues at CTP, 555 Medford Center, until Sunday, June 16. Performances are set for 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and at 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $18 to $25. The production is about two-and-a-half hours long with a 15-minute intermission.

For more information and tickets, see CTPMedford.org or call the box office at 541-779-1055.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com

Brianna Gowland as Henrietta Leavitt points out constellations to sister Margaret Leavitt, played by Jessi Shieman, in Collaborative Theatre Project’s production of “Silent Sky,” running through June 16.{ } Photo illustration by Mike Kunkel