by Marguerite Saxton
Playwright Lauren Gunderson writes about women. She tells stories of brave women who altered history through their acts. This is an interesting story-within-a-story given that Gunderson’s life is, in and of itself, a challenge to the status quo. She is considered the most produced living playwright in America. Her prolific pen did not falter in writing Silent Sky, currently on stage at Arizona Theatre Company. Silent Sky is the story of 19th-century female astronomer Henrietta Leavitt.
Though she has many accomplishments, Leavitt is best known for discovering a way to measure distances to the stars. Born a fiery force in a world that prized domesticity, Leavitt blazed the path for giants such as Edwin Hubble. Her story is one to be told with dignity and pride, and ATC succeeds in delivering.
Director Casey Stangl makes smart and sensitive choices, casting empowered women who deliver crisp, unapologetic ranges of humor, insight, and seriousness. Veronika Duerr, who portrays Henrietta Leavitt, offers up a nuanced and complicated woman, filled with passion for her work, disdain for normalcy, but appreciation for family. Duerr’s version of Leavitt showcases the many choices women who dare to shine brightly must make along the way, sometimes eschewing partnership or raising a family or other life affirming possibilities in order to pursue the big dream. What I appreciate about how Leavitt is characterized is more than this though. It’s how she didn’t always seem to know the answers either. She is a brilliant and confident woman who also doesn’t know how to navigate the grey areas of life. She is fatigable, and charmingly so.
Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, two of Leavitt’s colleagues and strong women in their own right, bring a balance to the performance. In sync and flowing freely through their scenes, Inger Tudor, who plays Cannon, and Amelia White, who portrays Fleming, are constant bursts of light in the overarching theme of patriarchal oppression. They must challenge it with their basic existence but find comical ways to do so. Referencing Newton’s, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” one of Fleming’s lines goes: “There’s been a lot of stupid giants”.
A breathtaking infusion of stagecraft and lighting happens between the work of scenic designer Jo Winiarski and Lighting Designer Jaymi Lee Smith. The theme of luminescence pervades this production. We are witness to a pleasing spectrum of visual metaphor through a circular cyclorama. It provides a fresh and inventive take on visual storytelling and serves as a reminder of the grand, cyclical message of it all. An illuminated doorway floats in steady omniscience, seemingly knowing way more than the audience does. This is the portal from which people enter or exit Leavitt’s world with their tidbits of influence and challenge.
The colors of Silent Sky were like the star-filled night. Dark blues, rich burgundies, royal purples, piercing light blue auras, all coming together to enrich the already well-designed space.
Between nerdy science jokes and more austere matters such as, you know, breaking down the stigma of working woman and the never-ending glass ceiling we’ve faced throughout history, one will find tender moments of unanswerable paradoxes: a sister in need of support, an admirer who can only get so close, a journey not taken, a life refused to live. “During this time of immense scientific discoveries, women’s ideas were dismissed until men claimed credit for them” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution). We see and feel this palpable struggle throughout the play. In it we experience the fight these women made to balance the daily expectations of their lives and their out-of-this-world desires.
What feels like a small victory for ATC is only slightly paled by the fact that the real Leavitt continued her work at the Harvard Observatory until her death, plucking stars from the sky and categorizing them with an open mind and unabashed curiosity.
Lucky as we are, Tucsonans are treated to a free horizon show every night. Just look over at Gates Pass around sunset and see what folks from around the world come to capture pictures of. ATC has found a way to squeeze the magic of this beloved natural treasure into a theater, portraying one of its greatest stars with the dazzle she deserves.
Silent Sky runs from through November 9th. Tickets can be purchased by visiting the Arizona Theatre Company box office, calling (520) 622-2823, or online at arizonatheatre.org.