Friday, June 29, 2018

Finding room for wonder and details in the universe: "Silent Sky" introduces a new theater group

After I first encountered Walt Whitman's poem "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" in my teens, I thought it supported my defensive posture about science. My initial enchantment with stars and dinosaurs several years before was fading against the challenge of actual high-school science classes, getting simple experiments to come out right and all that.

So I took the poet's departure from an astronomy lecture to contemplate the heavens unaided as superior to studying them; it wasn't the only time in adolescence I grabbed onto something in order to justify an immature perspective. I felt confirmed especially by the line "How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick."
The women of "Silent Sky" celebrate astronomical advances.

The poem is quoted at a crucial place in "Silent Sky," the stunning inaugural production of Summit Performance Indianapolis, which I saw in preview Thursday night at Phoenix Theatre's Basile Theatre. Lauren Gunderson's play articulates one woman's struggle to make an impact in the all-male science world around the turn of the last century.

More than that, the triumph of pioneering astronomer Henrietta Leavitt was to have reconciled the exhausting research of collecting data about stars with the sense of wonder that had sparked her interest as a girl. As seen through the prism of this play, the Whitman line I once thought inclined me toward the humanities really means that being tired and sick in pursuing knowledge may be a necessary cost of putting your awe on a sound footing.

As presented in "Silent Sky," Henrietta's vision is not only internally compatible, but also somehow ennobling. One side of it feeds the other. Carrie Schlatter's portrayal of Henrietta radiates the strength of each side of the vision. Just as the universe as we know it expanded as the result of her efforts, so does the character grow into a larger apprehension of her place in life — even as she encounters both resistance and repeated personal sorrows.

The vision is rooted in the character of a brilliant woman willing to sacrifice restrictive values she's inherited from her conventional Wisconsin family, devoted to domesticity and the church, and to contend with patriarchy. The play, with its ornate but witty, pungent language, traces Henrietta's pursuit of her dreams and the admiration she wins both from her family and her colleagues at Harvard. As illness takes its toll late in life, the resonance of her discoveries reaches worldwide, but "Silent Sky" stays close to her personal pains and pleasures.

Lori Wolter Hudson directs the show with emphasis on Henrietta's variations of distance and brightness with respect to her surroundings and those dear to her. You might see that as a projection of the character's restlessness, independence, and resolve, so consistently evident in Schlatter's performance. It's also an oblique parallel to Henrietta Leavitt's discoveries about the distance of stars from Earth based on more than their comparative brightness. She showed how the pulsating appearance of stars called Cepheids provides a regular measure of how far away they are from other stars and from our planet. These calculations led to certainty that many stars whose light reaches Earth are located light-years beyond the Milky Way, the home galaxy once regarded as the whole universe.
Henrietta Leavitt stands at the center of the universe she helped expand.

The vividness and energy invested in the other roles kept the play from relying too heavily on the central figure, as if she were the sun around which other planets revolve. This gives the production a firm balance between the magnetism of Henrietta and the pull of people close to her and their tendency to follow their own agendas. Her close yet feisty relationship with her sister, Margaret, was set out dynamically as a lifelong bond tested by the siblings' contrasting temperaments; Devan Mathias represented Margaret as someone constrained by a sense of duty, largely at ease with her place in life and able to negotiate what was expected of young women, while keeping her artistic dreams alive. In one thrilling scene, her music provides Henrietta with a breakthrough insight.

As Henrietta's fellow toilers in the unseen professor Pickering's "harem" of female "computers," Molly Garner handles superbly the transformation from the severe, hypercritical Annie Cannon to an active suffragist, a woman blossoming under the initially resisted influence of Henrietta; and Gigi Jennewein sparkled as Williamina Fleming, the proud but hospitable recipient of Pickering's trust after a stint as his housekeeper, salt-of-the-earth Scottish to the core.

As the professor's narrowly valued and rather prim assistant Peter Shaw, Adam Tran negotiated the amusing late-Victorian delicacy required of proper relationships between the sexes, yet with a plausible manner of bursting through some of the character's well-learned politesse (apologies to "Sympathy for the Devil") to express a life-altering passion, which turns out to be doomed by time and circumstance.
Shaw  looks at a gift book Henrietta has just opened.

The set encompassed places where big dreams can be both nurtured and starved, nudged and thwarted. But the overall appearance of Abigail Copeland's scenic design was tilted toward the open-ended feeling the drama gives the audience, with vistas on aspects of reality that rarely impose themselves on our everyday outlook, even today. Laura E. Glover's lighting design carries out suggestions of a real world beyond the everyday one; there's glory in the concepts she realizes in this show, avoiding artificiality and underlining how the advancement of knowledge takes place in quotidian human contexts.

So strongly realized in all departments, "Silent Sky" is an antidote to both the anti-science mentality now so much out in the open and the continuing suppression of women's potential to do more than prop up male achievement. With its emphasis on theater by and about women, but for everybody, Summit Performance Indianapolis has laid out a path in its first production that promises a well-grounded way forward.

[Photos by Emily Schwank]