Staging Silent Sky in a planetarium was an inspired idea by Theatre Pro Rata, whose unique production marks a welcome new use for the Bell Museum’s stylish Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium. As it happens, though, the company’s otherwise unexceptional take on Lauren Gunderson’s 2011 play sorely needs the added attraction.
The play tells the true story of astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose work at Harvard in the early 20th century became part of the foundation for the discovery that the universe is, literally, expanding. Gunderson captures a moment when opportunities for women were also expanding, but were still couched in a repressive patriarchal system. For Leavitt, that meant she wasn’t even allowed to use the telescope at her own job: She was hired as a human “computer,” documenting the brightness of stars captured on photographic plates.
As Leavitt, Victoria Pyan greets every obstacle with a cheerful determination. She’s a bright new star in the department she shares with her colleagues Annie Cannon (Amber Bjork) and Williamina Fleming (Sarah Broude, glorying in a robust Scottish accent). Leavitt’s presence unsettles Peter Shaw (Carl Swanson), a colleague who’s astonished by Henrietta’s ambition and smitten with her smile. Complications ensue.
Although Gunderson is, with good reason, one of America’s most popular playwrights, her script for Silent Sky doesn’t have a lot of built-in hooks. The plot is driven by a familiar tension between small-town roots and big-city dreams, with a number of pivotal developments happening offstage. That gives the five-person cast a lot of exposition to handle in a play that also requires them to explain concepts like spectral classification and period-luminosity scales.
In the play, the cosmos is deployed metaphorically as well as being discussed in its own terms and contrasted with the Christian views of heaven held by Leavitt’s sister Margaret (Danielle Krivinchuk). It’s perfectly apt, then, to stage Silent Sky in a space where audience members can lean back and contemplate the night sky along with the characters. The illuminated dome also helps to set the scenes on Earth, with immersive landscape imagery transporting viewers from verdant countryside to imposing observatory.
That does, of course, tend to pull the attention up and away from the actors, challenging the cast to make strong impressions. Under the direction of Carin Bratlie Wethern, these performers are pleasant but not particularly memorable. Most critically, they miss or underplay a lot of the humorous beats in a play that requires creative characterization and careful timing. Bjork and Broude keep their scenes crisp, but the lack of chemistry between Pyan and a charmless Swanson utterly deflates a love story that’s one of the script’s weak links to start with.
Fundamentally, though, the show succeeds at not just telling the story of a pioneering scientist but unlocking the fascination of the stars. Just as Leavitt herself did, Silent Sky leaves you with a lot to think about.
2088 Larpenteur Ave. W., St. Paul
612-626-9660; through March 8