Stars align in Hipp’s Silent Sky

Henrietta Leavitt leaves her pastoral home in Wisconsin, much to her sister Margaret’s chagrin, to follow her bliss as an astronomer. Margaret fears for her survival, not because she’s a worry wort, but because she knows that women are not astronomers at the turn of the 20th century, and Henrietta will be lucky to land a job at 25 cents an hour.

That’s precisely what happens in Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky when Henrietta gets hired by Dr. Pickering to work at the Harvard Laboratory alongside Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon, under the supervision Pickering’s subaltern Peter Dowd,  in what is taken to be an utterly mind-numbing task measuring the brightness of stars.

Henrietta Leavitt’s process of recording the changes in Cepheid stars will lead to the Hubble telescope and an understanding of astronomy utterly beyond Man’s reach – until she came along to calculate the distance between us and stars no one even knew were there before – lots of them – more than twice as many as had been known to exist before she found them.

Savannah Simmerly & Elise Hudson ((Photo by Michael Eaddy)

The first stars to shine in this Hippodrome production are, respectively, sound designer Amanda Nipper, scene designers, Julie Ray and Jordyn Seever, technical director Warren Goodwin and carpenter Rob Leach, lighting designer Robert P. Robins, and costume designer Erin Jester, because their works of art greet our eyes and ears from the moment the lights go up to begin our cosmic adventure, Lauren Gunderson’s melodrama Silent Sky.Projection designer Bill Boothman is waiting in the wings, because as beautiful as Silent Sky is when it begins, you aint seen nothin yet.

Silent Sky is spectacular but let us not forget the hierarchy of Aristotle’s six elements of drama – plot, character, thought, diction, sound, and last but not least spectacle. There is so much more to Silent Sky than its marvelous sensory effects. The stagecraft complements the dramaturgy, which is married to a tight-knit ensemble, to produce a sublime theatrical experience, something to think about not just because of the ideas, but because of the way it felt.

Amanda Nipper’s underscoring always puts us in a mood. You don’t know which one until it happens, and it happens first thing here, mystical and alluring, enveloping the theatre in a rich, resonate intrigue, as we are entering the vastness of space through an inconspicuous portal in Wisconsin.

The lights come up on a scene design that orbits toward us, and Erin Jester’s costumes begin to evolve from 1900 to 1920 just as the characters do, thrusting their identities and personalities into the colors and fashions that history dictates, with an eye to contrast and colors that tether the inhabitants to a particular earth we’ve only read about.

Lauren Gunderson has masterfully plotted the play. Plot, you understand, is not the same as story. The plot is the arrangement of events. It’s only in the way the events are arranged that we learn the story.

Henrietta wonders just how has it come about that women, exclusively, have become “computers”? And the answer is because Dr. Pickering, the head of the Harvard Laboratory, began assigning the presumably menial task of measuring the brightness of myriad stars to the cheapest possible labor- adolescent boys. Pickering thought his housekeeper could do a better job, so he hired her. And it turned out he was right. Then it further turned out, as the plot skillfully reveals, that the housekeeper was Williamina Fleming.

The beauty of the plotting is that we meet Williamina long before we find out that she was the housekeeper. We meet her the way Laura Shatkus presents her, assertive to the point of feisty, bristling with all-comers and twisting them into shape with a Scottish burr to tweak each punchline. Her comic timing is aces.

Elise Hudson, Laura Shatkus, Cynthia Beckertt (Photo by Michael Eaddy)

Stephanie Lynge’s staging exploits the plotting, and character development is achieved through Gunderson’s dislocation technique – people in different places in time and space communicating across the chasm.

The first thing each character does is destroy the illusion of stereotype. Savannah Simmerly imbues Margaret with such common sense, such plain honest empathy that her reappearances throughout become reassuring.

By spanning 20 years, Silent Sky reveals character development and growth – they change before our eyes. Henrietta becomes a great astronomer. You can see it by the light in her eyes – bright to begin with, but gaining in intensity as she searches the universe or turns her gaze on Peter’s libido.

The sensuality conveyed by these two layered, buttoned-up people is mesmerizing and ever afterward we will wonder: did that really happen or was it just fantasy? And we get the impression that Peter and Henrietta are wondering the same thing.

Tim Dowd (Photo by Michael Eaddy)

Silent Sky is one of the most produced plays in America, but, as always, the Hipp offers something different from all the rest – Shakespeare’s stage, the thrust, with an audience on three sides, lending another dimension to each scene. Here the set swirls at us out of the sky like a meteor, subtly incorporating six different levels that Lynge’s staging and the players playing exploit to full advantage, circumscribing arcs and orbits, with vibrant intention. Watch the way Tim Dowd accelerates in and out of the voms on entrances and exits, replete with spin moves and give-and-go.

As Peter, Dowd plays a cat and mouse game, first with Henrietta, parrying her barrage of wit and will and wisely submitting, then with himself to argue whether he is man or mouse. He is both, proving it with the slow burn of his convictions matched with a kinetic energy that makes him scurry like a rat in a maze.

Elise Hudson has a firm grasp of the focus as Henrietta by virtue of her noble stature, but mostly with a wide-eyed curiosity and, best of all, an almost hidden vulnerability. Because of Gunderson’s mix of presentational and representational styles in Henrietta’s speeches, we see things from Henietta’s point of view. We identify with her. And we know, because this is history, that she’s going to die.

(Photo by Michael Eaddy)

She knows it too. She knows she’s going to die before she ever finds out what she wants to know. Because she wants to know everything. She also knows that history is now.

As the strong-willed Annie, Cynthia Beckertt is quietly expert at directing our focus, securing the nuts and bolts of the operation, fixing our attention on the task – locating humanity in the cosmos. It turns her into a suffragette. She stands up and won’t stop there, because to win their rightful place among the stars, women must march. She’s not a marcher when we meet her; she grows into one.

Cynthia Beckertt (photo by Michael Eaddy)

It’s an expanding universe.

As an added pleasantry, the ensemble is so articulate and well-spoken, the diction across the board is clean and clear.

The popular conception of melodrama is Snidely Whiplash tying the heroine to the railroad tracks and the hero arriving in the nick of time to save her.

If it seems a diminishment of its achievement to call Silent Sky a melodrama, it is not an inherently ignoble term in the theatre, and it is only in relation to Brecht’s epic drama, Galileo, to which it might justifiably be compared, that I make the observation. Silent Sky is not revolutionary, only exquisite.

Melodrama, with its roots in 17th century Italy, though romantic and appealing to the emotions, was simply drama with musical underscoring. It functioned through the opposition of a villain to a hero. In Silent Sky, the villain is man’s pigheadedness, male-dominated society. In Silent Sky, the melody is provided by the music of the spheres. What’s happening in space, Henrietta discovers, is a symphony that reaches its glory with Bill Boothman’s entrance from the wings, remember him? That’s the beauty of Silent Sky, it becomes more and more beautiful.

Silent Sky, now playing at the Hippodrome Theatre through May 7.


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