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Ford’s Theatre’s production of Silent Sky might be the brightest thing on 10th Street NW.
Watching the opening scene of the Lauren Gunderson play feels warm and familiar—like your most rewatched sitcom or your favorite version of Little Women or Pride and Prejudice. In the scene, we meet future pioneering astronomer and resident dreamer of her household Henrietta Leavitt (Laura C. Harris), whose life the play is based on, and her sensible church-going sister, Margaret (Emily Kester). We’ve just encountered these women but we already know them well. The pair are bickering, as Henrietta plans to leave her family and their farm to go study the stars at the Harvard College Observatory and Margaret, engaged and staying home, somewhat resents her flighty nature.
Harris and Kester portray their respective characters with ease, grace, and authenticity. It’s easy to become invested in their stories. The real Henrietta was born in 1868, making the play a period piece. But it’s one that is still just as relevant today.
Henrietta heads to the observatory, where she would go on to make scientific breakthroughs that change the field of astronomy—finding about 2,400 variable stars and documenting their changing brightness. Her work influenced Edwin Hubble and ultimately led to the realization that the universe is expanding. She and Margaret, despite loving each other dearly, remain very different. At one point, Margaret flippantly tells her while reading a newspaper, “You’d think a world war would make the stars seem trivial.” Henrietta retorts, “You’d think stars would make war seem trivial.”
Throughout the show, Henrietta is constantly asking the big questions: Who are we? Where are we? When are we? How far away are those stars? She wants to uncover the secrets of the solar system, of the galaxy, of the universe. She’s not alone in her cosmic quest. Her peers at the observatory, Annie Cannon (Nora Achrati) Williamina Fleming (Holly Twyford), and Peter Shaw (Jonathan David Martin) are similarly devoted.
The characters contain multitudes. Henrietta has a grand vision and is completely dedicated to her work. Margaret is down to earth but eventually supports her sister’s desire to know what happens high above it. Boisterous, cackling Williamina and serious, powerful Annie serve as both comic relief and grounded sounding boards for Henrietta, fellow women scientists who she can lean on and make and celebrate discoveries with. And strange, ever awkward Peter is both Henrietta’s initial intellectual rival and love interest. Underneath their surface-level characteristics, the five are decidedly dynamic. It’s a joy to see them evolve during the production.
Milagros Ponce de León’s effective scenic design is also a pleasure to experience. At times, the play pauses for music and dance interludes on the grand staircase at the center of the set, making the drama feel like a celestial fairytale.
At its heart, Silent Sky is a character study, a showcase of sharp dialogue and the uplifting power of sisterhood and friendship. It knowingly portrays the importance of scientific discovery, and the dynamics between men and women in higher education, science, and astronomy, specifically. Mostly, though, it’s an inspiring tale about far-off dreams that suddenly don’t seem so distant, and the journeys people take to get to them—even through the lens of a powerful telescope. Throughout Silent Sky, those who surround Henrietta always seem to be looking around at one another while she is always looking up to the heavens and down at her work.
Silent Sky accomplishes its mission to boldly show a life and a legacy that many people may not have known about, but that has meant so much to space exploration. When Henrietta and Margaret sit together after some time has passed and both their lives have changed, they have a frank conversation. Margaret tells Henrietta that she has a legacy. Henrietta says she only has work that she cannot finish. “That’s what a legacy is,” Margaret says.
511 10th St. NW. $20–$70. (202) 347-4833. fords.org.
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