Last Thursday evening, I had the pleasure of attending the opening night of the Station Theatre’s production of Silent Sky, a charming and beautifully written play about women following their passion and going where no woman has gone before.
Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson tells the story of Henrietta Leavitt, real life astronomer from the early 20th century who in many ways helped to pave the way for future female scientists. In this play, we see her move from home and a caring close-knit relationship with her sister, Margaret Leavitt, to pursue her passion and a position at Harvard, working with Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming (both of whom also broke boundaries for women of the future). Upon her arrival though, it quickly becomes clear, thanks to an introduction with Peter Shaw, that her position does not require her to think and pursue her own thoughts, but rather to simply compute data for the men above her. The play follows her journey to her own scientific success, her struggle in romantic and familial relationships, and her lasting legacy.
In my opinion, the Station Theatre’s production, directed by Katie Burke, can be summed up to one word: charming. From beginning to end, I found the production engaging and entertaining, pushing major themes and thoughts about feminism without getting bogged down, creating laughs without venturing into slapstick, and developing characters that you care and root for. As a whole, this production brings out the beauty of Lauren Gunderson’s writing with a strong cast and thoughtful production elements.
I appreciated that the small, almost all female cast was still able to show a range of ages, shapes, and races. At the center of it all was Anika Lena Vogen, who brought to life the character of Henrietta Leavitt with a charming, nervous, passionate energy that was a steady foundation for the rest of the production to play off of. Without such a strong central actress, the play would have suffered greatly, but Vogen’s presence was the steadfast energy of the production.
Emma Anderson played her conservative, pious sister Margaret, and would often get the most laughs from simple facial expressions and unspoken reactions. I’ve seen Anderson in other capacities and generally prefer her in more outright comedic roles, but I thought the two played well off each other. Some of my favorite moments in the play were the moments portraying the sisters’ correspondence via letters, when the two would speak to each other across the stage, sometimes having real interactions and closing the distance between them, sometimes leaving room for silence.
Laura Alcantara and Carolyn Kodes portrayed Henrietta’s office mates and fellow “computers” (Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming respectively) with a cool and steady energy that balances out Vogen’s well. Alcantara’s initial harsh and perhaps icy exterior slowly and subtly softens, making moments when she smiles and even jokes all the more enjoyable. The final scene of the play rounds her character out well, featuring her both in a vulnerable moment and the revolutionary garments of pants and a suffragette sash. Kodes’ Williamina Fleming brings pure joy and many laughs to the show, while also providing some much needed wisdom to the young Henrietta. She also delivers possibly the best line in the show: “The mind is sexless and so is the sky.”
Jace Jamison, the only male in the cast, skillfully portrays Peter Shaw, who undergoes significant character development throughout the story. In his first scene, he introduces Henrietta to her position, making subtle and not so subtle, sexist comments towards her. To be honest, I actually wondered if I was going to make it through the rest of the show with such an insufferable character. But by the end of the first act, I was genuinely rooting for him, and the turns his character takes in the final act were poignant and touching. A less experienced actor would not have been able to make this turn around so complete, but Jamison did it with a sense of ease.
Emma St John’s scenic design perfectly complemented the themes of the play. Set in an alley style, with the audience on two sides of a long, narrow strip of stage, the set featured Henrietta’s home and work life at each end. Three tall panels on either end of the stage framed the space nicely and suggested an interior setting, while also letting the audience see through to the walls, which were covered in constellations of stars. This effect also covered the ground and the walls of the theater surrounding the audience, giving the impression that all of us were actually floating in space, a simple and effective touch. Above the center of the stage was a configuration of stringed lights that glowed beautifully in the moments when Henrietta was not tied to her desk, but literally and hopefully looking up into the sky. Paired with a subtle use of color in the lighting, blues and purples occasionally, the lighting design by Brian Hagy helped move us to more figurative and dreamy moments, as well as pull us back to reality with a more straightforward white light.
Jenna Kohn and Hannah Yonan’s costumes were appropriate to both the time period generally, and to each character specifically. They were both beautiful and well fitted, which is not always the case in amateur theater. Moreover, they were cohesive and complimentary.
The sound design by Lorna Chavez was the only element that, for me, occasionally faltered. For the most part it was appropriate and added to the scene, whether it be a subtle underscore of music in more emotional moments or the sound of wave crashing in scenes set on ocean liners. The only moments I disagreed with was the somewhat spontaneous sound of glass breaking. While I believe this was meant to represent a sort of emotional injury or breaking point for Henrietta, a reasonable concept in theory, in practice it is jarring and even distracting. It brought me out of the moment instead of adding to it, and I think even turning down the volume on those moments, to make the effect more subtle, would be helpful.
Overall, the production is, as I said, charming. It is elegant and easy, and an excellent night of entertainment for anyone looking for something fun and uplifting. But in the days since I’ve seen in, what has stuck with me the most is the sense of hope that comes with it. More than anything, in today’s political climate and in a country where the president has said hateful things about women, I found this play full of women, designed and directed by women, telling a story of the triumph of women to be hopeful and inspiring. Not in a passionate or fiery way. It did not leave me wanting to march in the streets, but it did leave me with a quiet and resolute understanding of the long standing resilience of women.
Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Katie Burke, runs February 15th to March 3rd at the Station Theater. For tickets and information, click here.