‘Silent Sky’ is main spring play, telling story of astronomy pioneer Leavitt

Acclaimed work by Laura Gunderson based on scientist's inspiring life of a century ago; production to be streamed during its upcoming March 25-27 run, with small campus audience possible

March 18, 2021
Faculty/staff report

Silent Sky, a historically-rooted play by the widely popular young American dramatist Lauren Gunderson based on the life of the pioneering astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt more than a century ago, is this year’s Saint Michael’s College Mainstage spring 2021 production.

silent sky

Pictured from left to right during a recent rehearsal of Silent Sky are Ava Magoon ’22 (Williamina Fleming); Aimee Turcotte ’23 (Annie Cannon); Mckenzie Rowbotham ’24 (Henrietta Leavitt). Cast but not pictured, Corban Ridlon ’22 (Margaret Leavitt) and Arthur Resch ’24 (Peter Shaw). Photo by Jerry Swope

While the production will take place in McCarthy Arts Center Theatre as is traditional for Mainstage shows, the St. Mike’s campus remains closed to outside visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said director John Paul Devlin of the College’s Fine Arts/Theatre faculty. The production will be streamed live on YouTube at smcvt.edu/springperformances. Limited in-person seating may be available as circumstances allow on a first come/first served basis for current Saint Michael’s College students, faculty and staff. Shows are at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday March 25-27 with an additional 2 p.m. matinee on March 27. Cast members wear masks in this production.

Director Devlin said this year marks the 100th anniversary of Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s death from cancer at just 53 years of age. “Her work as an astronomer contributed significant standards by which others could begin to measure distance to the stars, and determine that that Milky Way Galaxy was not synonymous with the entire universe,” he said.

Today her work would likely be far more widely accepted and acknowledged than it was at the time, Devlin said.  “Astronomy 100 years ago was dominated by men who relied on and used the work of women like Leavitt, Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon, but typically did not see them as peers,” he said. “The science in the play is real, but other details have been subject to playwright Lauren Gunderson’s artistic license in crafting a good story.”

The creative team for the production is: director and scenic/lighting design, John Paul Devlin; costume design, Peter Harrigan ’83 (also of the fine arts/theatre faculty); sound design, Abra Clawson; stage manager, Carrie Egan ’24; assistant stage manager, Meagan Gallo ’24; poster design, Oliver Verret ’24. The cast consists of Ava Magoon, ’22 as Williamina Fleming; Aimee Turcotte, ’23 as Annie Cannon; Mckenzie Rowbotham, ’24 as Henrietta Leavitt; Corban Ridlon, ’22 as Margaret Leavitt; and Arthur Resch, ’24 as Peter Shaw.

Following is a summary of the story for this play, from Dramatists’ Play Service website: “When Henrietta Leavitt begins work at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s, she isn’t allowed to touch a telescope or express an original idea. Instead, she joins a group of women “computers,” charting the stars for a renowned astronomer who calculates projects in “girl hours” and has no time for the women’s probing theories. As Henrietta, in her free time, attempts to measure the light and distance of stars, she must also take measure of her life on Earth, trying to balance her dedication to science with family obligations and the possibility of love. The true story of 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt explores a woman’s place in society during a time of immense scientific discoveries, when women’s ideas were dismissed until men claimed credit for them. Social progress, like scientific progress, can be hard to see when one is trapped among earthly complications; Henrietta Leavitt and her female peers believe in both, and their dedication changed the way we understand both the heavens and Earth.”

Here are some positive reviews from various prominent media outlets about the play, which first opened in select U.S. cities in 2015: “…sheer magic [is] in Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky…Gunderson [writes] economically and with bursts of smart, infectious humor.” —San Francisco Chronicle; “… Silent Sky could act as a simple reminder of what a pleasant, thought-provoking evening at the theater ought to look like. It’s a lively, funny, accessible play that’s alive with interesting ideas.” —ArtsAtl.com. “[Silent Sky] is a startling, entertaining true story of a brilliant, history-making woman—hitherto unknown to many of us.” —AtlantaInTown.com. “Lauren Gunderson’s luminously beautiful play Silent Sky is an intellectual epic told on an intimate scale. Bottom line: Heavenly.” —Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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