Merrimack’s ‘Silent Sky’ : A woman lost in the stars

Julia Brothers, Polly Lee, Alexis Bronkovic, Victoria Grace, and Tom Coiner in “Silent Sky.” Photo by Meghan Moore

LOWELL – When a young woman finds herself lost in the stars, she makes it her goal to work in the field where she can make her life amidst the celestial objects.

In the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of “Silent Sky,” a sparkling cast brings to vivid life the tale of Henrietta Leavitt, who rose above rampant sexism and the loss of her hearing to do meaningful – make that very meaningful – work in a field that was all but barred to females in the early 20th Century.

Playwright Lauren Gunderson is the most-produced American playwright this season, and in “Silent Sky” she details over a 20-year period from 1900-1920 Leavitt’s passion for her work, and the sacrifices she made along the way to becoming a pioneering astronomer.

Despite the misgivings of both her clergyman father and her loving sister, Henrietta (a luminous Alexis Bronkovic) is determined to forge a career in astronomy, using her marriage dowry to do it.

She receives an invitation to work at the Harvard College Observatory, but she learns soon after arriving she won’t be anywhere near a telescope as she’d hoped. Instead, she is to become one of the all-female human “computers” hired by Edward Charles Pickering to measure and catalog the brightness of stars as they appeared in the observatory’s photographic plate collection.

Alexis Bronkovic and Tom Coiner in “Silent Sky.” Photo by Meghan Moore

A Radcliffe grad who studied astronomy, but was a few credits short of a degree in the subject, Henrietta was not deemed worthy enough to use the telescope, and she and the other women were paid a pittance.

Julia Brothers, who starred in last season’s MRT production of “Women in Jeopardy!” is flat-out wonderful as Henrietta’s co-worker Willaimina Fleming, who dispenses dry humor and wisdom with a thick Scottish burr and takes to Henrietta right away.

Polly Lee is right there with her as Annie Cannon , the no-nonsense head of the department, consigned to the fact she and her co-workers may never progress from their little corner of the world.

She does not warm to Henrietta and her ambitions right away. “If doing that which has never been done before sounds unimportant to you – uninspired – I’d leave before you are asked to.”

But her bark is worse than her bite, and Annie eventually relents to allow Henrietta to go beyond her job title and find something important and meaningful in the plates.

We learn to like and admire Henrietta for her doggedness and the extra unpaid hours she puts in, and root for the women as they battle the higher-ups determined to confine them to a tiny little corner of the field. The women know the work they do is invaluable, even if it hardly valued at all by the men who are running the department.

The astronomy department is led by the never-seen Dr. Pickering, and Gunderson conjures up his assistant Peter Shaw (Tom Coiner), who keeps frequent tabs on the women. It eventually becomes apparent he is keeping extenive tabs on Henrietta more than the work, and a relationship begins.

Henrietta is eventually torn between the work at Harvard and Peter and her family back home in Wisconsin, where loving sister Margaret (Victoria Grace), a musician and mother, is keeping the home fires burning and asking when Henrietta is coming home.

When their father suffers a stroke, Margaret is overwhelmed and summons Henrietta, who takes her work back with her to Wisconsin.

Leavitt achieved little recognition during her lifetime, other than a promotion earned late in her career, but what she discovered first allowed astronomers to measure the distance between the Earth and other galaxies.

Set deisgner James J. Fenton has done lovely work for MRT in the past – “Abigail 1802” and “The Outgoing Tide” come to mind – and his multi-level set features a balcony, lights that double when needed as stars, and a series of concentric circles that could be seen as astronomical markings of some kind.

Anne Kennedy’s costumes are period perfect and David Keeton’s sound design and original music and Brian J. Lillenthal’s lighting are both effective.

Silent Sky” is an engrossing, entertaining, uplifting tale well told, and MRT Artistic Director Sean Daniels has recruited both a top-notch cast and the designers to allow Gunderson’s work – like one of Henrietta’s stars – to shine brightly.

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre production of Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky.” Directed by Sean Daniels. At the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre through Nov. 12.