(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
Lauren Gunderson’s play Silent Sky is a straightforward two-act drama that reveals the little-told story of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt’s contribution to our modern understanding of the universe. With the film Hidden Figures coming out next year and telling the story of the African American women who did the math for NASA’s space program, now is a good time for Silent Sky to get a new mounting.
Austin Playhouse has done just that. Their production – running through Oct. 16 – is a fairly by-the-numbers portrayal of the text, with strong performances that highlight the play’s most resonant moments.
Gunderson’s text is at its strongest when it engages with the scientific issues Leavitt wrestled with, and its language is at the most poetic when speaking of how these insights relate to mankind’s (and womankind’s) search for meaning, on a public as well as very personal level.
However, the drama of Leavitt’s personal life – her relationships with her sister Maggie and her male supervisor/suitor Peter Shaw – is never quite as enthralling as her public engagement with the celestial findings at which she studiously worked.
The uneven quality of the text comes through in the performances. Molly Karrach is delightful as Henrietta, but she truly sparkles when getting to show Leavitt’s genius and work ethic. Her interactions with her colleagues – the warm, humorous Williamina Fleming (played by Cyndi Williams) and Annie Cannon (Babs George) – are imbued with more life than those with Maggie (Claire Grasso) and Peter (Samuel Knowlton). Indeed, both Grasso and Knowlton are at their strongest when the text allows them entry into Henrietta’s work life, and not just her private affairs.
Williams and George, given richer material to work with, shine throughout, their relationship going back and forth from gossiping best friends to bickering semi-rivals. They remain steadfast in their support of Henrietta and her search for cosmic truth, combining science with feminist politics in a rich and rewarding way.
Director Lara Toner Haddock (along with assistant director Jess Hughes) makes some strong staging choices throughout Silent Sky, but her real achievement here is in minimizing the technical stagecraft so as to focus on the performances of her talented cast. In this she is aided by a strong design team – costume designer Diana Huckaby, lighting designer Don Day, sound/video designer Joel Mercado-See, set designer Mike Toner, and prop designer Kathleen Toner – that focuses on simplicity over flourish.
Silent Sky is a light, pleasant historical drama that reminds us of the important, largely unheralded, role women have played in the history of science, and Austin Playhouse’s new production solidly provides that reminder with strong performances and a dash of scientific poetry.