Two weeks ago, some friends and I had the opportunity to attend the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s production of Silent Sky, directed by Gaye Jeffers. Written by Lauren Gunderson, the play is a dramatization of the inspiring story of nineteenth-century astronomer and mathematician Henrietta Leavitt. The show proved to be a thought-provoking biography of a woman who fought for her place in the universe, and I am glad that U.T.C. offered their stage to such a compelling play.
The real-life Henrietta Leavitt was born in 1868 and attended university at Radcliffe College, where she discovered her life’s passion: astronomy. Unfortunately, there were no jobs for women in this field. All astronomers were men, and women were not even allowed to touch the telescopes at observatories. Undeterred, Leavitt got a job as a “human computer” at the Harvard Observatory, where she kept records and performed routine mathematical drudgery for Harvard’s world-renowned faculty at a rate of $0.30 an hour.
Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, Leavitt was soon making remarkable progress. She detected more than 2,000 new Cepheids (stars which vary unpredictably in brightness), and after more than 10 years of effort, she discovered mathematics which could describe and predict the Cepheids’ variance. Leavitt’s results later allowed Edwin Hubble, eponym of the Hubble Space Telescope, to accurately calculate the distance to most stars in the visible universe. Thanks to Leavitt’s equations, humanity was able to determine our position within the universe for the first time in history.
The set for this production, designed by Adam Miecielica, was truly spectacular. The main stage was occupied by a circular platform with several levels, painted to look like a star chart of the night sky. A vaulted black arch rose from the back of the stage to the ceiling, opening to a blue-lighted curtain interspersed with twinkling LED stars. Most of the vertical space between the stage and the proscenium was left open, suggesting the vastness of the night sky. Costumes were also quite good — designer Kim Davis effectively captured the styles of the period, while still providing important suggestions about the personalities of each character.
Lead actress Ceirra Dolata gave an inspiring and convincing performance as Leavitt, carefully balancing the multiplex requirements of a character who both waxes poetic about the beauty of life and practically works herself to death in the same play. Her rendition of Leavitt could be a fanatically dedicated mathematician in one scene, only to become a lovestruck teenager in the next. The supporting actors were also generally good, although their consistency varied more than Dolata’s.
Rachel Shannon, who played Leavitt’s sister Margaret, was adequate in her role as a worried homemaker, but her character would have benefitted from greater nuance. Maya Abram’s performance as Annie Cannon, one of Leavitt’s fellow computers, was quite good, offering a picture of a driven and genuine feminist pioneer. Samantha Burns’s performance as Scottish computer Williamina Fleming was uproariously funny, although her affectation of a Scottish accent needed substantial improvement. Finally, Nick Sterling as Peter Shaw, graduate research assistant and love interest to Leavitt, offered a convincing performance of an awkward, and even boring, character — he effectively walked the line between misrepresenting the character and coming across as flat.
Silent Sky raises some fantastic questions about where humanity can find an ultimate hope. The question of our literal position within the physical cosmos plagues Leavitt for the entire length of the play, and she can only rest content after hearing of Hubble’s results from her data. Silent Sky’s blending of theatre and scientific history is enthralling, but the play leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Leavitt finds the final meaning of her life in discovering that outer space is far bigger than anyone had ever expected, and this remarkable vastness seems to be offered to the audience as a source of hope. Even still, it seems that we are approaching a time when even the promise of an infinite universe will sound hollow and lonely. Without being grounded in something nearer and greater than the distant stars, we all may be Henrietta Leavitt, searching for meaning in our own finitude, forever dwarfed by the emptiness of the cosmos.
I encourage Covenant students to catch one of U.T.C.’s upcoming shows and to watch critically for the different ways that Covenant and U.T.C. approach the staging and production of college theatre. U.T.C.’s upcoming spring theatre productions are Elemeno Pea, Feb. 13-17, and Chicago, April 17-21. More information is available on the U.T.C. website.