Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Theatre Pro Rata's Silent Sky is a Wondrous Success

“In our troubled days it is good to have something outside our planet, something fine and distant for comfort.”

Photo by Theatre Pro Rata

The beginning of March means it's Women's History Month, one of my favorite reminders throughout the year to celebrate the unsung female heroes who walk among us. Thankfully the #tctheater community has several opportunities to celebrate these formidable figures. One of the most unique is Theatre Pro Rata's current run of Silent Sky, which takes place in the planetarium at the secretly fantastic Bell Museum on the University of Minnesota's campus.

Silent Sky tells the story of Henrietta Leavitt, a brilliant mathematician whose astronomical aptitude and obsession with Cepheid stars uncovered the data that allowed us to calculate the distance between earth and celestial bodies for the first time. Detailing Leavitt's journey from a rural village in Wisconsin to a seat at the heart of Harvard's vaunted all-women team of "computers," where she trained under fellow luminaries like Annie Cannon and Willamina Fleming, Silent Sky is an elegant depiction of the triumph (and sacrifice) that comes with complete dedication to one's passion despite all obstacles. Leavitt's obsession with the astral universe is thrilling and devastating; as pleasurable as it is to watch her soar beyond society's ceiling, it is undeniable that she made life altering sacrifice to do so. It's a stark reminder of how far we still have to travel to truly free women to enjoying an equal set of options to their male counterparts and a fun theatrical journey to-boot.

Silent Sky's cast seems to have a blast doing this show, and it was a pleasure watching them have so much fun. Victoria Pyan seamlessly steps into Henrietta Leavitt's shoes, compassionately depicting her trailblazing life. Danielle Krivinchuk oozes empathy as Henrietta's sister Margaret Leavitt, giving a cozy home life contrast to the fast paced world of the computers. Carl Swanson expertly depicts Henrietta's one-time love interest Peter Shaw; I found his character absolutely maddening, but Swanson finds a way to humanize him even in contrast to modern expectations. My favorites were Amber Bjork and Sarah Broude as Annie Cannon and Willamina Fleming, respectively. Bjork is perfectly stoic, a model suffragette, and I was eager to see more about her character (hey Lauren Gunderson - make a show about Annie Cannon too!). Broude was absolutely delightful (with a spot-on accent) as Fleming, quite reminiscent of Downton Abbey's Mrs. Hughes, and I will gladly be looking for her in other local shows after this.

This production is all about the planetarium setting, which is perfect for this show. Projections form the bulk of any discernable set and easily placing us between the major locales of Leavitt's life, and Julia Carlis's lighting design smoothly integrates with the planetarium's photography. Samantha Kuhn Staneart's costume design is period-appropriate with a charming hint of sparkle to match the stars the women study. Props to sound designer Jacob M. Davis, who nails the microphone balance on each actor to make sure their lines don't get swallowed by the unique venue. Overall, Director Carin Bratlie Wethern's vision keeps things simple, a nice way to keep the production quickly moving and the focus on storytelling rather than special effects.

Silent Sky is a perfect fit for fans of Hidden Figures or anyone who likes to know more about under-sung histories or the hows and whats of our universe. There are still so many answers to be found about our world. What's really out there in the sky (or under the ocean)? Why are we here? How do we fit into the purpose of this vast, unmeasurable cosmos? Without visionaries like Henrietta Leavitt (or the Harvard computers as a whole), we would be much further from answering these questions (and our culture and science much poorer for it). I adore seeing the vital contributions of overlooked women finally getting their due, and I can think of no better way to celebrate Women's History Month than to check out this sweet production of Silent Sky. It's also a great excuse to visit the Bell Museum, which is a hidden gem that deserves far more local airtime. Silent Sky runs through March 8; click here for more information or to order tickets.

And if you love this subject matter, you're in luck! There is a kickass movement happening right now to tell more of the stories of unknown or underappreciated women, specifically in science. Time Magazine just released a glorious celebration of 100 notable Women of the Year - do NOT miss it. There is of course the film and book Hidden Figures; outside of that are the excellent The Madame Curie Complex, which gives short biographies of female scientists (including all of the characters mentioned here in Silent Sky); What Miss Mitchell Saw, a beautiful children's book about a woman named Maria Mitchell (whose story is quite similar to Henrietta Leavitt's); and consider branching out into books specifically about under-represented women of color, such as Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees or Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. And follow me on Goodreads to keep tabs on what I'm reading - often it's stories like the one told in Silent Sky.

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