‘Silent Sky’ illuminates the past at Giving Tree

Silent Sky

Giving Tree Theater — through Nov. 11

Kyle Shedeck and Claire Boston, in ‘Silent Sky.’ — Zoey Akers/Giving Tree Theater

Whenever I walk into a new show at Giving Tree Theater in Marion, I never know how the stage will be configured or what innovations in lighting I will be seeing. Richie Akers is an inventive stage designer who has a seemingly bottomless well of ideas. I was not disappointed when I sat down to Silent Sky. The traditional stage set up was lit by dozens of light bulbs signifying the stars that play a central role in Henrietta Leavitt’s life. The costuming (Heather and Richie Akers) set the time period immediately, and the audience was transported to the turn of the 20th century.

Silent Sky, directed by Heather Akers with assistance from Hannah Spina and stage managing by Amy Kaduce, is based on the true story of Henrietta Leavitt’s life and career. Claire Boston brings this central character to life, and throughout the play, the audience sees that Henrietta is a focused academic — in decided contrast to her sister, Margaret Leavitt (Amber Mussman).

These two actors portray different female archetypes who at once complement and contrast each other. Margaret is the traditional wife and mother of the time period where Henrietta is a scientist and academic in a time when women were just beginning in such fields. Boston’s portrayal clearly shows the audience Henrietta as a woman who felt both the societal pull of domestic life and a personal calling to scientific work. Although some of the conversation between the sisters is slow, both Boston and Mussman bring these sisters to life with a clear force of personality.

Amber Mussman as Margaret Leavitt, in ‘Silent Sky.’ — Zoey Akers/Giving Tree Theater

Peter Shaw (Kyle Shedeck), Williamina Fleming (Jen Boettger) and Annie Cannon (Lynne Rothrock) comprise Henrietta’s work colleagues at the Harvard College Observatory, where the women are employed, essentially, as “computers.” They measure and catalog the brightness of the stars as part of a larger astronomy project.

The three women, referred to as Pickering’s harem (Charles Pickering — not a character in the play — was director of the observatory), all contributed significant individual discoveries to the field of astronomy. Watching the story as a stage play, the audience is reminded of the contributions of the women, but also the relationships, which truly come alive and illuminate the work they are doing. The interplay between these three characters is alternately serious and lively.

Lynne Rothrock, Claire Boston and Jen Boettger as scientists at the Harvard College Observatory, in ‘Silent Sky.’ — Zoey Akers/Giving Tree Theater

Shedeck, Boettger and Rothrock all create a lovely cohort in an office where one imagines the work might become detailed and tedious. Boettger and Rothrock embody their characters consistently, and truly light up the research environment. Peter and Henrietta have a brief romance, but Henrietta never marries, devoting her life to her work, a quality that Boston communicates clearly throughout the play. While Shedeck’s character is stalwart and perhaps predictable, Shedeck himself becomes the character admirably.

In a time when sciences of all kinds are being questioned and women may feel under attack, Silent Sky reminds its audience of the importance of scientific work and all those who do it. At the same time, the characters in Silent Sky ask us to consider the wonder of dedication, passion and discovery — the wonder of the stars.

Silent Sky runs through Nov. 11 at Giving Tree Theater in Marion. Tickets are $26.

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