Steel Beam's 'Silent Sky' sheds light on astronomer Henrietta Leavitt

  • Margaret Leavitt (Kassandra Hesek), left, Williamina Fleming (JoAnn Smith), Henrietta Leavitt (Paige Brantley), Annie Cannon (Julie Bayer) and Peter Shaw (Jake Busse) greet the cultural and scientific changes of the future in "Silent Sky" at Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles.

    Margaret Leavitt (Kassandra Hesek), left, Williamina Fleming (JoAnn Smith), Henrietta Leavitt (Paige Brantley), Annie Cannon (Julie Bayer) and Peter Shaw (Jake Busse) greet the cultural and scientific changes of the future in "Silent Sky" at Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles. Courtesy of Steel Beam Theatre

 
 
Updated 1/17/2019 1:42 PM

"Silent Sky" -- ★ ★

American astronomer Henrietta Leavitt doesn't have the name recognition of Edwin Hubble -- the namesake astronomer for America's famed Hubble Space Telescope orbiting the earth. But playwright Lauren Gunderson makes an effort to redress this imbalance in her five-character 2011 biographical drama "Silent Sky," now in a sturdy production at St. Charles' Steel Beam Theatre.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Silent Sky" points out that the influential astronomical observations of Hubble (1889-1953) wouldn't have been possible without the diligent research of Leavitt (1868-1921) and her hypotheses on separate galaxies existing far beyond the Milky Way.

The play starts out on a domestic note as Henrietta (Paige Brantley) and her soon-to-be wed sister, Margaret (Kassandra Hesek), argue about what roles they should play in society as women.

Margaret wants Henrietta to stay in Wisconsin to help her tend to their preacher father. But Henrietta would rather cash in her dowry to support herself for a job at the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Sisters Margaret (Kassandra Hesek), left, and Henrietta Leavitt (Paige Brantley) return to Massachusetts and are greeted by Henrietta's co-workers Annie Cannon (Julie Bayer) and Williamina Fleming (JoAnn Smith) in "Silent Sky" at Steel Beam Theatre.
Sisters Margaret (Kassandra Hesek), left, and Henrietta Leavitt (Paige Brantley) return to Massachusetts and are greeted by Henrietta's co-workers Annie Cannon (Julie Bayer) and Williamina Fleming (JoAnn Smith) in "Silent Sky" at Steel Beam Theatre. - Courtesy of Steel Beam Theatre
by signing up you agree to our terms of service
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Unfortunately, the position is far more limiting and tedious than Henrietta had expected. There's early conflict as Henrietta realizes that less-qualified male colleagues, including her supervisor Peter Shaw (an enjoyably awkward Jake Busse), are given more access to the institution's Great Refractor Telescope.

Henrietta's ambition is also initially resisted by her fellow female mathematical tabulators, colloquially called "computers." Annie Cannon (an appropriately prickly Julie Bayer) is all business, while Williamina Fleming (a wonderfully down-to-earth JoAnn Smith) is much more fun and feisty.

As with her historically inspired play "The Book of Will," Gunderson crafts "Silent Sky" to commemorate a prominent figure who perseveres to inspire future generations. Her drama economically mixes the personal with the gender politics of the era without being too preachy.

Save for some clunky delivery of the play's early exposition, the performances under director Sean Hargadon are all strong and involving. Some of the design elements, however, were not quite as successful.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Steel Beam Theatre's production of "Silent Sky" stars Paige Brantley, left, JoAnn Smith, Kassandra Hesek, Julie Bayer and Jake Busse.
Steel Beam Theatre's production of "Silent Sky" stars Paige Brantley, left, JoAnn Smith, Kassandra Hesek, Julie Bayer and Jake Busse. - Courtesy of Steel Beam Theatre

Lighting designer Andy Murschel rigged up a series of antique-looking light bulbs to hover above the tiny auditorium, perhaps to symbolize stars. But since they're not in the eye line of most audience members, the on-and-off flickering of the bulbs came off as errors by the lighting board operator.

Set designer Jen Johnson and scenic painter Tiffany Jasinski's trio of star-spattered angular pylons also felt out of place. Rather than representing the historical technology of the era, they seem to visually foreshadow more of the astronomical discoveries and societal advances that are celebrated in the play's closing coda.

Steel Beam's "Silent Sky" is the area's third production of the play, following on the heels of a 2017 staging by First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook and last year at Theatre of Western Springs. It's a hopeful sign that Henrietta Leavitt will become a better-known historical role model for young girls who might want to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

• • •

Location: Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles, (630) 587-8521 or steelbeamtheatre.org

Showtimes: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; through Feb. 3

Running time: About 2 hours with one intermission

Tickets: $22-$28

Parking: Nearby parking garage and area street parking

Rating: For general audiences

0 Comments
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.