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Brief Thoughts on Silent Sky

Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, presented by Flat Earth Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, is a gorgeous contemplation of the things one must give up to pursue truth and discovery. Gunderson tells the story of Henrietta Leavitt, a woman astronomer who leaves behind her father and sister to work at Harvard Observatory before switching course and leaving her work and new fiance to return to her family in their time of need. She is always looking toward the stars and never quite satisfying all of her responsibilities at once. The play contains an implicit criticism of patriarchal structures that kept Leavitt from the honors she deserved in her lifetime, and Henrietta’s slight deafness highlights her separation from those around her, both male and female. In some sense, it is the classic “genius tale”: Henrietta sees things that others cannot and pursues an understanding of the flickering stars with a fervor that few mere mortals can match.
Flat Earth’s production used a flexible, spare space that made frequent use of boxes and tables to create different settings. The back of the stage was composed of five starry panels, between which actors could enter, and lightbulbs hung down from the top of the stage to give the impression of a night sky. These astronomical surroundings provided an apt backdrop for Henrietta’s moments of wonder, in which she stared up into the heavens that the audience could easily imagine. The fact that the stage was surrounded by stars and felt like part of the sky emphasized the way Henrietta saw the world, and when characters such as Henrietta’s fiance Peter spoke of earthly concerns and societal decorum, the contrast between the imagery and his words highlighted the disparity between what was important to Henrietta—and the largeness of the universe—and what society expected of her.
Spatial arrangement was also used to highlight the distance between Henrietta and those around her; in the letter-writing scenes, the director chose to place the writers on boxes so that there was always a difference in level between the person trying to communicate and the person reading the letter.
But I don’t know how I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the moments of joy in the script and in this particular production. One of the strengths of Gunderson’s writing is her ability to weave in glimpses and in fact full broad currents of comedy through her dramatic world. Even the first scene, the dramatic departure of Henrietta from her sister and their home, contains such recognizable sister banter that the audience can’t help but crack a smile. And the presence of the Scottish friend and budding suffragette companions in the Observatory sets up a comic dynamic of subtle but strong resistance against the male tendency to forget the women employees.
The romance buried within the piece was introduced after many of the other themes and felt sudden; at least, Henrietta’s reciprocation of Peter’s affection felt sudden. Perhaps the expectation of this sort of drama is that romance is not the main conflict, and for much of the play it felt as though Henrietta’s thoughts were too much with Peter (an imaginary figure concocted by Gunderson for the sake of this play). When the play resumed after intermission with Henrietta dreaming of having Peter’s children, I think I might have groaned out loud. Luckily, that scene was in her imagination and did not come “true” onstage; however, though the scene did raise an obstacle for Leavitt’s character, I’m not sure it was necessary to take the dreams of romance quite so far when she was an inch away from one of the most important astronomical discoveries in history. (But Lauren, if you ever read this, take this critique with a grain of salt: I love your play.)
Overall, the humor and weighty themes of Gunderson’s thought-provoking piece drew the audience into a different world, helping us to recognize our own small place in the universe and wonder what we are going to do with it. The ending, a list of the accomplishments of each character with descriptions of their deaths, leads audiences to contemplate what their own flashing stars are and what is holding them back from getting there.

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