“Silent Sky” Celestial Drama @ Ross Valley Players
Loosely based on the academic career of the groundbreaking astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, this production of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky shows how we can, with enough dedication and persistence, realize the most obscure of our obsessions. Case in point: when Ms. Leavitt entered the Harvard College Astronomical Observatory in 1903, the role of women in that department was solely to examine glass photographic plates for minute differences in the intensity of starlight, plates take through telescopes far distant from their dusty research office. The department was headed by men, and whatever discoveries might have been made by these women would have been claimed by those men.
This is the backdrop for the play. But Ms. Leavitt ( Isabelle Grimm) is no proto-feminist, she’s a scientist whose life has become devoted to finding those obscure differences, mere dots on the glass-plate negatives. It’s an intense study that leaves no time or place for family or love. But those connections do arise in her, and in juggling them she loses some things, gains others, and grows in the process.
This remarkable script manages to make the technicalities of astrophysics beautiful and understandable to the audience, and so involve us in the sweeping depth of Leavitt’s passion for them. Isabella Grimm seems to have been perfectly cast in the role of Henrietta, outspoken and headstrong in seeking her rightful place in the academic world, entirely given over to the pursuit of her “Cepheid” variable stars and their celestial dance. And swept up in a temporal romance that never quite coalesces.
Her fellow female researchers (played by Pamela Clochetti and Rachel Kayhan) and her sister (Alicie Piemme Nelson) each provide a unique sidelight to the developing drama, a knowing overview of the passions inherent in the study of the stars, and those arising in the heart when their overseer Peter Shaw (Peter Warden) finally admits to his own obsession with Ms. Leavitt. The world was changing rapidly around them, but it Leavitt’s contribution to astronomy that led to the realization of the utter vastness of the universe, the infinity of it all and our obscure place in it.
The simple staging (set design by Ronald E. Krempetz)–a few piano-sized props before an austere wood backdrop backlit by an observatory looking out into the night sky, sustains the severe academic intensity that renders her obsession believable. A handful of moveable railings, deftly manipulated, transform the space entirely into other imagined locales. Careful direction by Chloe Bronzan moves the play through a decade or more, across half a continent, from ship to shore to auditorium, communicating through time and space, with a minimum of fuss, in a completely believable manner. All of it memorable, to run through your mind again and again.
Kudos to all. With one more weekend left in the run, you owe it to yourself and your stars, to make time for this one.
Through February 9 @ “The Barn,” 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd. on the grounds of the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross CA
Tickets: RossValleyPlayers.com 415-456-9555
Review by David Hirzel