Mike A. Bryan, A&E Editor
The most recent production by Insight Theatre Company, “Silent Sky,” is a philosophical journey through space and time, wrapped in an emotionally-fueled package. The story focuses on Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who made a remarkable discovery about the relation of luminosity and groups of stars called Cepheids in the early 1900s. Her groundwork laid the foundation for the first-ever mathematical formula to determine how far away a star is from the Earth, and she was posthumously awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her groundbreaking astronomical and mathematical discoveries. The famous astronomer Hubble, of the Hubble Telescope, also utilized her work to prove that the universe is expanding. That’s the general story in a nutshell—but this play was so much more. It brought love and longing, family, and intense emotion to the story, making it compellingly poignant for the audience; it also presented complex philosophical ideas about life, the universe, gender equality and white male privilege.
Local actress Gwen Wotawa shone as lead character Henrietta Leavitt, convincingly embodying the intriguing historical figure. She was supported by a small cast of three other women—Jennifer Theby Quinn as her sister Margaret, Chrissy Steele as Williamina, and Elizabeth Ann Townsend as Annie Cannon—and one man, Alex Freeman as Peter Shaw. Each of the other actors could have easily stolen the show, especially the sister. The set was equally sparse, being made of panels of white sheets arranged in such a way to make a small, boxy stage. We sat in the front row and were mere inches from the actors in certain scenes. Upon the panels of sheets were projected various settings, the most common of which were dense shots of a star-filled sky. Props were spare, with the actors utilizing only the most basic of furniture. This sparseness helped to balance the intense emotions caused by the spectacularly-written dialogue.
The story focuses on Leavitt’s life, beginning in rural Wisconsin. Her father is a preacher and her sister is a musician. After graduating from Radcliffe, Leavitt returns to the family farm, anxious to find work but having no luck. She is eventually offered a position as a “computer” in the Harvard astronomy department and begins work there analyzing stars in the late 1800s. It is through this work that she eventually makes her discovery, but it does not come without loss and suffering. There is an almost-romance between Leavitt’s character and the lone male role, whose character is her boss in the astronomy department at Harvard. This relationship tugs at the heart strings of the audience, offering up numerous tear-jerking moments. About halfway through the story, Leavitt is forced to return home to help her sister with their dying father, whose real tears, beautiful singing voice and talented piano-playing captivated the audience. She continues her work in Wisconsin, and it is this trip that is the undoing of her budding romance with her colleague. Over the course of the play, the audience sees how Leavitt’s work eclipses everything else in her life, causing her emotional distress and regret. It is her constant quest for a “real truth” that drives her to work incessantly, overwhelming everything else in her life.
Leavitt makes an overseas journey, and it is at the time of her return that we learn she has become very ill. She dies of cancer not long after. The end of the play is especially tear-jerking, but also quite inspirational. The beautifully-written dialogue expresses so much about life, love, loss, regret, suffering and success. To fully understand the depth of philosophical ideas mentioned above, one must see the play. It is compelling, moving, intense and fully deserved the standing ovation by the small audience. Not only does it tug at one’s heartstrings, it makes you reflect deeply on the state of gender equality and white male privilege in these trying times. If you ever get a chance to see this play, do not hesitate. It will open your eyes to the beauty of this earthly life through an examination of the furthest points in our galaxy.