“Silent Sky” at Taproot

The powerful “Silent Sky” gives voice and credit to an unsung heroine who made a significant contribution to science but never received adequate recognition for it. The story of the accomplishments of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (well played by Hana Lass) is also a story of her battle against sexism.

This brilliant Radcliffe graduate began working for Harvard’s astronomy department in the 1890s. Though as a female she was never allowed to go near the telescopes. We see her working with two other women as high-end administrative assistants. Their job was to record the brightness of the stars captured on the photographic glass plates that the “real” astronomers produced. But Henrietta’s curiosity couldn’t be contained. What was the meaning of these differences? Working independently after hours, she studied the variability and brightness of certain of the stars, discovering patterns, relationships that her male bosses had failed to note.

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Hana Lass in Silent Sky at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Her findings were a building block that changed human understanding of the universe. Hubbell’s work built upon the scientific papers she published. Her data, served as a building block for his realization that our galaxy wasn’t the center of the universe.

All of this is revealed in “Silent Sky,” but the play is so much more than that.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson juxtaposes Henrietta life against that of her sister (Candace Vance), a gifted musician, who chose family rather than career. Throughout the play we see Henrietta trying to balance the needs of family with those of her career. Gunderson is extremely careful to avoid polemics. Yet Henrietta’s conflicts and compromises are heartbreaking as is the recognition that that she could have done so much more in her field were woman not suppressed.

The great success of this play is the manner in which it draws together both the scientific story and the personal one with all its ramifications. As directed by Karen Lund, it’s a thoughtful exploration of the sexism of the early 20th Century and the continuing compromises required of all women in our society. Career or marriage and family? Is it possible to be fully successful at both? At what cost?

Hana Lass as Henrietta brings all the intellectual brilliance as well as the needed emotional turmoil to the role. The supporting cast members nimbly support Henrietta as she experiences success, love, loss, and despair.

Especially noteworthy are Mark Lund’s scenic projections that provide a full stage backdrop. Magnificent celestial panoramas, pastoral scenes as well as cityscapes work wonderfully to enhance the action and set the mood in this finely honed production.

Through Feb. 27 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle, (206 781-9707 or www.taproottheatre.org).

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