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Arts & Entertainment - January 24, 2014

Following her star

'Silent Sky' hails pioneering female astronomer Henrietta Leavitt

by Jeanie K. Smith

Lauren Gunderson has taken the theater world by storm in the last 10 years, garnering numerous commissions, awards, features and invitations that any young, emerging playwright would be justifiably envious of. She has a fascination with science, astronomy in particular, and a facility with dialogue and character that makes her plays fun and accessible to modern audiences.

A native of Atlanta, Gunderson currently resides in San Francisco, making it a timely opportunity for TheatreWorks to mount a stylish production of her 2011 play, "Silent Sky." It's rare when playwrights get to be in residence for other than a premiere.

Along the lines of some of her earlier works dedicated to scientists, "Silent Sky" chronicles the life of Henrietta Leavitt, a pioneering astronomer from Wisconsin who works tirelessly at the Harvard College Observatory to prove her worth and follow her scientific hunches about the universe. Thwarted in her efforts by a male-dominated field, she nevertheless perseveres and manages to make an astonishing discovery having to do with the relationship between pulsing light from stars and their distance from Earth. Her research forever changes astronomy and leads to other important findings.

Leavitt (Elena Wright), or "Henry" as she's called by her sister Margaret (Jennifer Le Blanc), passionately pursues her interest in the stars, ignoring traditional paths for women. She's not a blatant feminist, as is her Harvard colleague Annie Cannon (Sarah Dacey Charles), or confrontational like her feisty Scottish colleague, former housekeeper Williamina Fleming (Lynne Soffer), but quietly persists despite obstacles in her path.

Short-sighted and decidedly unfeminist professor Peter Shaw (Matt Citron) attempts a romantic distraction; sister Margaret urges a more "normal" life like her own. But Leavitt has her own star to follow, and her single-mindedness pays off in enormous proportions.

The play serves up inspiration, motivation and wonder, delivering homilies about dreams and dogged pursuit of passion. It's far from sappy, though, and may even provide that kick in the pants to get people back to following their own dreams. The actors are lively, well-cast for their roles and able to bring out both the comedy and the humanity of Leavitt's struggles and triumphs.

If there is a drawback to the play, it's that the first act is inexplicably long and suffers from repetition and redundancy. The action unfolds slowly, with lengthy scenes in the Harvard workroom that do little to advance the story.

The second act is much livelier and much shorter, leaving one to wonder why the acts are divided as they are and to wish that Gunderson had given the play another pass through a dramaturgical mill. The excellent actors do their best to keep the action moving and engaging, but there are still drawn-out scenes that are unfocused and circular.

But stick around for Act 2 for better scripting and for some beautiful effects by scenic designer Annie Smart and lighting designer Paul Toben. The stars are exquisite, with a depth of field rarely seen on stage. Music by Jenny Giering plays a big role in the show and nicely underscores the action. Costume designer Fumiko Bielefeldt gets to take us from 1900 to 1920 in women's dress, including some fun with suffragette Cannon.

Kudos to the ensemble, all of whom are wonderful, but especially to Wright and Le Blanc for their stellar work.

It's an intriguing play, overall, offering up science, history and feminism — but it's mostly a memorable example of one woman who refused to give up on her passion, her heart's desire.

I sense a lot of New Year's resolutions being given birth in the discussions following the show, and that's perhaps the best reason to see it: Let Henry inspire you.

What: "Silent Sky," by Lauren Gunderson, presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: Through Feb. 9, with 7:30 p.m. shows on Tuesday andWednesday, 8 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday andSunday, and 7 p.m. shows on Sundays

Cost: Tickets range from $19 to $73.

Info: Go to or call 650-463-1960.


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