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updated: 4/5/2017 11:05 AM

Bissell's luminous performance animates First Folio's 'Silent Sky'

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  • Video: "Silent Sky" scene 2

  • Video: "Silent Sky" scene 1

  • Cassandra Bissell plays Henrietta Leavitt in First Folio Theatre's production of "Silent Sky." The 2011 play by Lauren Gunderson chronicles the work of Leavitt, an early 20th-century human "computer" who discovered how to measure the distance between stars.

    Cassandra Bissell plays Henrietta Leavitt in First Folio Theatre's production of "Silent Sky." The 2011 play by Lauren Gunderson chronicles the work of Leavitt, an early 20th-century human "computer" who discovered how to measure the distance between stars.
    Courtesy of David Rice

  • Early 20th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (Cassandra Bissell), right, describes to her sister Margaret (Hayley Rice) how she and her fellow "human computers" catalog the stars in First Folio Theatre's production of "Silent Sky."

    Early 20th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (Cassandra Bissell), right, describes to her sister Margaret (Hayley Rice) how she and her fellow "human computers" catalog the stars in First Folio Theatre's production of "Silent Sky."
    Courtesy of David Rice

 
 

At the Harvard College Observatory early last century, Henrietta Swan Leavitt helped catalog the cosmos. And she did it without looking through a telescope.

Her gender denied her that opportunity. She and her fellow female scientists studied the stars using astronomical photographic plates. As women, they could not even claim the title "astronomer," although that's what they were. And significant astronomers at that. Leavitt developed a method to measure the distance between stars, which astronomer Edwin Hubble used to prove his theory of the expanding universe and the existence of galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

Playwright Lauren Gunderson chronicles Leavitt's efforts in "Silent Sky," an affectionate but formulaic bio-drama currently running at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook under Melanie Keller's warm, vigorous direction.

Like the hit 2016 film "Hidden Figures," 2011's "Silent Sky" illuminates a little-known chapter in American history, while celebrating the true stories of mostly unsung women who made significant scientific advancements possible.

Imagine what discoveries they might have made had Leavitt and others been granted access to the equipment?

We meet pastor's daughter and mathematician Henrietta Leavitt (a luminous, impassioned Cassandra Bissell) in 1900 as she prepares to leave her family's Wisconsin home and her beloved sister Margaret (the ever-supportive Hayley Rice) for Cambridge, Massachusetts. A graduate of Radcliffe College ("Harvard in skirts"), Leavitt has accepted a job at the Harvard College Observatory believing she will achieve her life's ambition: to gaze through a telescope and ponder the profundities of who, why and where we are.

First Folio Theatre revives Lauren Gunderson's "Silent Sky," which tells the little-known story of Henrietta Leavitt, the early 20th-century female astronomer whose pioneering work expanded understanding of the universe.
First Folio Theatre revives Lauren Gunderson's "Silent Sky," which tells the little-known story of Henrietta Leavitt, the early 20th-century female astronomer whose pioneering work expanded understanding of the universe. - Courtesy of David Rice

Instead, she finds herself among a group of female computers known as "Pickering's harem" -- named for the observatory's unseen director, astronomer and physicist Edward Charles Pickering -- who catalog the stars for male astronomers. The men's gender grants them access to the telescope. And their observations confer on them immortality, while their female colleagues remain practically anonymous.

"We collect, report and maintain the largest stellar archive in the world. And we resist the temptation to analyze it," advises Annie Cannon (a droll, serious Jeannie Affelder), an accomplished scientist who developed the star classification sequence and its corresponding mnemonic device: "oh be a fine girl/guy, kiss me."

Like Cannon, fellow computer Williamina Fleming (played with folksy good humor by Belinda Bremner) is based on a real person, Pickering's former housekeeper, a Scottish immigrant who describes the women's function as "cleaning up the universe for men."

Their supervisor is the fictional Peter Shaw (played with earnest charm by Wardell Julius Clark), a Pickering protégé increasingly attracted to the indefatigable Henrietta.

Their relationship -- however sweetly portrayed by Bissell and Clark -- is a contrivance, and a troubling one at that, because it suggests a play about an accomplished female scientist is somehow incomplete without a romance. Gunderson's dialogue is lovely, even rapturous. And the respect she has for these women is obvious. But too often, "Silent Sky" fails to deliver on some tantalizing issues it raises, including Henrietta's hearing loss, which is never fully examined (despite having apparently inspired the title). There's not much tension. Margaret's recriminations over Henrietta failing to visit her family feel halfhearted and easily resolved, absolving Gunderson from addressing the pressure Henrietta would have felt choosing career over marriage.

While astronomer Peter Shaw (Wardell Julius Clark) lectures his Harvard University students about the finite universe, fellow astronomer (in all but title) Henrietta Leavitt (Cassandra Bissell) marvels at its infinite nature in First Folio Theatre's production of "Silent Sky."
While astronomer Peter Shaw (Wardell Julius Clark) lectures his Harvard University students about the finite universe, fellow astronomer (in all but title) Henrietta Leavitt (Cassandra Bissell) marvels at its infinite nature in First Folio Theatre's production of "Silent Sky." - Courtesy of David Rice

Most disappointing, however, is Gunderson's failure to explore more deeply the conflict between faith and science. Several times, a debate felt imminent. I leaned forward, anticipating arguments only to be disappointed by a cursory reference.

Visually, there is much to admire about First Folio's production, including Angela Weber Miller's minimalist set, an observatory with a classical design that reflects both the scientific and the sacred. The combination of John "Smooch" Medina's celestial projections and Michael McNamara's moody lighting make for some stunning moments.

But the most illuminating thing about First Folio's "Silent Sky" is Bissell's exquisite, intelligent performance. Opening night, during the beautiful, final moments, Bissell's voice caught as she expressed what inspires scientists and artists alike: being part of something greater than one's self -- truly a heavenly pursuit.

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