The sounds of silence


READING — When brilliant, Radcliffe College-educated Henrietta Leavitt (played by Grace Sumner) receives a letter at her Wisconsin home inviting her to come and work for Edward Charles Pickering, director of the prestigious Harvard College Observatory, she is thrilled by the prospect of doing important astronomical research.

That’s the opening scene of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, the current offering by Quannapowitt Players. Directed by Wakefield native Nancy Curran Willis and based on the true story of 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, the play tracks the travails of a group of women toiling in a man’s world at the dawn of the 20th century.

Henrietta’s idea of “the heavens” differs from that of her preacher father and her devout sister, Margie (Rachel Furgiuele), who don’t want Henrietta to leave their Midwest home.

But leave she does, and when she arrives at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s, Henrietta learns that women are not allowed to touch the telescopes. Instead, she will join a group of women “computers,” including budding suffragette Annie Cannon (Demetra Tseckares) and the witty former Scottish maid Williamina Fleming (Nancy Finn), cataloging the stars for the male astronomers.

The disappointing news is delivered, not by the renowned professor himself, but by his stodgy assistant Peter Shaw (Nick T. Miller). As the token male character in the play, Shaw is, of course, mostly unsympathetic. He tends to be dismissive and condescending in his attitude toward the women, whose job is to chart images of the stars recorded on glass plates for the renowned astronomer, who calculates projects in “girl hours.”

But Henrietta, working after hours, attempts to measure the light and distance of stars and arrives at some intriguing discoveries that would shape the future of astronomy. At the same time, she tries to balance her dedication to science with family obligations and the possibility of romance with (who else?) the beastly Peter Shaw.
Between Henrietta’s workaholism, Annie’s strident feminism and Peter’s chauvinism, Williamina emerges as the only one in this crew that you’d want to have a beer with. Unlike the others, she knows how to have a good laugh.
And, as Williamina, Nancy Finn not only has the Scottish accent down, she knows how to deliver a good line. In one scene, Peter Shaw thinks he’s spotted something interesting among the images of stars that the women are charting. When Henrietta points out to him that it’s just a scratch on the glass plate, Williamina needles him.

“We could name it after you,” she quips.

Through the lives of these characters, Silent Sky tracks the social and scientific progress of the early 20th century and shows how women such as these changed both the way we view the heavens and how we live here on earth.


Silent Sky runs through Oct. 12 at Quannapowitt Playhouse, 55 Hopkins St., Reading. Performances are Friday Oct 4, Saturday Oct. 5, Sunday, Oct. 6, Friday, Oct. 11 and Saturday, Oct 12. All Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. The Sunday, Oct. 6 performance is at 2 p.m.

Purchase tickets online or call the QP Box Office at 781-942-2212.

[This review originally appeared in the October 1, 2019 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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