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Silent Sky Soars

Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts in its Regional Premier through February 9.

Not since Proof has science, math and theatre mixed so lovingly as it did Saturday night when I sat down to witness the beautiful production of Silent Sky. Entering the theatre, we were warmly greeted by the open set, beautifully dressed to represent an observatory. I could feel immediately that something special would take place this night.

I was not disappointed. I knew nothing about this play before I signed up to see it. I chose wisely. The ensemble of five sterling actors kept us thoroughly entranced in their discussion of cataloguing the stars in the sky from photographic plates. We became as fascinated with the process as the "computers," the humans who were transcribing the data and naming the stars.

The play is the story of Henrietta Leavitt, exquisitely portrayed by Elena Wright, who discovered the process of measuring the distance of the stars. This discovery helped prove that the universe extended far beyond our Milky Way galaxy. Science-minded Henrietta is a contrast to her sister, Margaret (Jennifer Le Blanc), who is more spiritually-minded. These sisters, however, share a deep love and support for each other. Margaret is disappointed to be loosing her sister but still supports her when she learns Henrietta has been asked to work at Harvard University in the Astronomy Department.

At Harvard, Henrietta is disappointed to learn that she would not actually be looking through telescopes and studying the skies but would be cataloguing star plates from the other scientists. The females were relegated to more clerical tasks than their male counterparts. An interesting aspect of the performance was not just that we experience the growth and evolution of the five characters that are seen, but we experience the growth and evolution of unseen characters, such as the head of the department.

Henrietta is put to work alongside Williamina Fleming (Lynne Sofer) and her immediate supervisor, Annie Jump Cannon (Sarah Dacey Charles). Earlier, Henrietta comments to her sister her disapproval of women wearing bloomers because women were not meant to wear pants. Henrietta grows close to both women, even as Annie gradually wears more masculine clothing, including trousers by the end of the play.

Watching over the work of the women is Peter Shaw, played by Matt Citron, who is no more qualified for his position than she. Henrietta is determined that romance and family have no room with the work that needs to be done. Over time Henrietta and Peter discover that there may be room for other things.

Unfortunately, family tragedies bring her home for several years, which allows her to make her discoveries but loose her romance.

It was thrilling watching these five actors work so convincingly and beautifully with each other, bringing a story that kept us mesmerized. The set and lighting and sound and other visual effects acted in concert with the actors, so we were able to join with Henrietta in the discoveries she made, so that the science and the math made sense.

It was wonderful seeing a show from the audience in this theatre for the first time, after spending many shows with Lamplighters either on stage or back stage. Education has never been more fulfilling.

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