By Lauren Gunderson Directed by Mark Edward Smith Starring Melissa Whitworth and Adam Reilley
Most people think scientific advances come as a blinding “Ah ha” moments after some single heroic experiment. But reality is much more boring; reams of data get collected then analyzed in detail, the scientist looks for trends, correlations, exceptions and eventually conclusions. That was Henrietta Swan Leavitt’s (Whitworth) job. She measured the brightness of individual stars one by one helping create the “Harvard Revised Photometry Catalogue”. She eventually found an unexpected relation between variable stars, their size and distance from earth. This lead to one of the biggest surprises of the century: the whole of space was much larger than our already enormous local galaxy, the Milky Way. Henriette had her personal entanglements: a failed romance with her supervisor Peter Shaw (Reilly), separation from her sister Margaret (Bethany Sparacio) because she wouldn’t just settle down and marry, and fraught relations with the cranky suffragette Annie Cannon (Ginger McDermott.) Hers was a pretty normal professional career: endless stretches of boredom and animosity, interrupted by a Nobel Prize.
This minimal show comes as close to capturing the process of expanding knowledge as any I’ve seen. Whitworth is regal and elegant and bit deaf; when she learned she didn’t get to run the telescope she buckled down and did amazing things with the data they gave her. Sparacio combined a loving attitude with disgust at Henrietta’s abandonment of family values. Reilly played fussy and officious, he trips over his vengeance when he lectures on what turns out to be a huge technical mistake. McDermott does her best entering as she transforms into a trouser wearing suffragette; and Karel Wright is the bestest best friend Henrietta could have. I highly recommend this small show; it’s tough to capture science in the approachable manner Silent Sky achieves. Its not as big a discovery as measuring the size of all space, but its pretty impressive none the less.