The lesser-known story of an astronomer named Henrietta Swan Leavitt is the focus of the playwright Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, which will make its Toledo debut on Friday, January 12 as part of the Valentine Theatre Studio Series.
Despite making lasting contributions to science, Leavitt’s story never really left the basement office at Harvard where she did her work. Through Gunderson’s Silent Sky, director Jeffrey Albright hopes to bring the scientist’s significance to the surface.
“Leavitt was a relatively unknown female astronomer in the early part of the 20th century who was instrumental in making discoveries that led to the Hubble Telescope,” said Albright. “She was the first person to identify patterns in certain stars, and because of that… scientists were able to measure their distance. This eventually opened up the possibility that the Milky Way wasn’t the only galaxy in the universe.”
The acknowledgment of Leavitt’s story, coupled with the mainstream success of films like Hidden Figures, indicates a growing interest in the overlooked history of women in science.
“We learn history from the white, Anglo male point of view,” Albright said. “Growing up, the only female in science that I ever heard of was Marie Curie… but women have contributions in all fields, and that history is starting to be recognized.”
Albright’s interest in Silent Sky is compatible with the goal of the play: recognizing and admiring the achievements of women.
In 2015, Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova produced another work by Gunderson, I and You. After Albright saw the play, he immediately became fascinated with the playwright’s work. In March 2017, Albright directed The Actors Collaborative of Toledo’s staged reading of Gunderson’s 2014 play Bauer, which was followed by an encore performance in July.
Soon after, the Valentine Theatre approached Albright about directing a show for their Studio A. He pitched a favorite by Gunderson: Silent Sky.
Connecting the past and present
“I pick plays based upon my gut reaction about whether it’s a good place for actors to flex their muscles,” explained Albright. “I read plays initially through the lens of an actor. While there’s certainly no roles in my age range or gender [in Silent Sky], I still thought that it would be a great opportunity. There is often a dearth of good roles for women, but this play features four incredibly strong female roles and focuses on the relationships that they create with one another.”
Albright hopes that audiences come away with a better understanding of how Leavitt’s contributions connect strongly with science and society today: “I think that the audience will leave the show feeling that each one of us are connected— the way the show ends, and I really can’t give it away, is how one discovery led to another, and then another. We’re not alone. We’re in this together. It’s beautiful.”
8pm, Friday-Saturday. 2pm, Sunday. January 12-21.
Valentine Theatre Studio A, 410 Adams St.
419-242-ARTS. | valentinetheatre.com