Review: A beautiful ‘Silent Sky’ at City Lights shines bright

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Henrietta Leavitt (Maria Giere Marquis, left) and Annie Jump Cannon (April Green) delve into a critical, astronomical world during the early 20th century in “Silent Sky” at City Lights through June 16th. (Taylor Sanders photo)

What is it about the stars that inspires endless fascination? Peek into the vast darkness that hovers above on a clear night, and the magical wonderment of the hundreds of billions of stars that dance among the moonlight creates a celestial world beyond our own. The stars and the possibilities that exist beyond our ground floor are endless. The ones that shoot, the ones that twinkle, the ones that dip big and little – stars and their magic allow mere mortals a chance to explore their infinite possibilities.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt, much like the stars she adores, exists in an alternate universe. The lovely young woman moves through earth with a frenetic skittishness, and almost functions as an anachronistic life form. She speaks in ways that no one can really comprehend, listening plaintively as a period style hearing aid dangles distinctly from her long dress.

What Henrietta has in spades is passion. It is her passion that drove her from her safe, laconic little Massachusetts town into the Harvard College Observatory, its own kind of star existing in a very specific, academic galaxy. And Harvard has something special, something Henrietta dreams of that will bring her closer than ever to her precious stars.

A telescope. A big, beautiful, shiny star-shimmering telescope. It’s one that would probably elicit strange stares in her hometown, but for a young woman whose dreams exist somewhere in the vast Milky Way, to touch, to stare through such an instrument is almost impossible to imagine.

Sadly, it is wholly impossible. Henrietta is a woman after all. And like many women before and after her, their functions in high, academic society are to support the men and their work. Infuriating? Yes. Still happening today? Sadly, more yes.

City Lights Theater Company’s production of San Francisco-based playwright Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky,” directed with sharp and delectable details by Mark Anderson Phillips, is as beautiful as those same stars that shine in the darkest, deepest valleys. Each detail of the production is loaded with succulent delight, from the stunning lighting design from Joseph Hidde, to Garland Thompson, Jr.’s striking projections, and finally, to Ron Gasparinetti’s universe of a set, another in the long line of his scenic master works that takes residence in the charming, quirky theatre space in downtown San Jose.

In the case of Henrietta (a fantastic turn by Maria Giere Marquis), going to Harvard as a researcher is quite a boon. But it doesn’t take her long to realize that her incredible, groundbreaking work initially takes a backseat to what women at the time were known for – painful, banal data entry. In the annals of higher learning, Henrietta starts off as a glorified temp. Assisting her work are the two ladies who have been breaking ground in their own right – the stellar classification pioneer Annie Jump Cannon (a sharp April Green) and the peppy Scottish star-cataloging expert Williamina Fleming (a cheeky Karen DeHart), always ready with a darted quip.

There is one other who is beyond socially inept, but a man who is tickled by Henrietta’s beauty and sharp intellect – the fictional scientist Peter Shaw (a varied and effective George Psarras). He wastes no time finding ways to saunter past Henrietta, and when he finally has some alone time with her to share a few words, those words end up being unreasonably loud blurting of random things, such as the name of his dachshund.

The power of the story has much to do with Henrietta caught in the two worlds that both fulfill and suffocate her, worlds that cost her so much personally. Her sister Margaret (an empathetic portrayal by Jessica Whittemore) works just as hard, but with no promise of a legacy. And while caring for a father who is battling serious illness, any spare time Margaret has is used to write letters to her father in Henrietta’s name. Sadly, it’s a way to keep his spirits high.

While the ensemble is fantastic, the show rides in the hands of Marquis, and she more than delivers. She listens, she discovers and finds so much of Henrietta’s minutiae, especially in the play’s love subplot where she plays against Psarras. Peter, who starts out as an awkward shell with a pipsqueak gait also must deliver some devastating news as the play and characters evolve. Their scenes and connection are some of the strongest the play has to offer.

Gunderson’s deliciously worded script is certainly one that shares critical knowledge about incredibly important pioneers. But just as importantly, the play succinctly illuminates the conundrum of a professional woman. Whether it was the guilt that Henrietta placed on herself or guilt placed upon her by others, we rarely if ever hear of a man who is caught in the middle of choosing family or career. These battles continue to be waged, battles that Henrietta and her colleagues fought in the early 20th century.

For Henrietta, who lived a life of intellect and curiosity, her gifts that were passed on to so many amazing pioneers continue to pay dividends for society today. “All I want to know is what’s true,” she says. Her truth rested in her beloved stars. At the end of her life, one that saw an amazing legacy crafted, all those precious stars aligned for her.

Her impossibilities became her truths, and those truths continue to shine bright every night at dusk.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

City Lights Theater Company presents “Silent Sky”
Written by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Mark Anderson Phillips
The Word: A beautiful, unified and sharply-acted production that explores a fascinating group of women and their groundbreaking work in the astronomical world.
Stars: 5 out of 5
City Lights Theater
529 South Second Street
San Jose, CA 95172
Through June 16th
Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission
Tickets range from $23 – $44
For tickets, call (408) 295-4200 or visit cltc.org

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