(L-R) Amy Tolsky, Tammy Mora, Abigail Stewart and Marie Broderick in Silent Sky. Photo by Michele Young.
Historic and powerful stories of women’s contributions to science, business, arts, culture and social justice continue to break through and inspire. The movie Hidden Figures taught many about the female “computers” whose calculations enabled space exploration, predating IBM’s room-filling replacements. Look What She Did and the National Women’s Hall of Fame collect stories of remarkable below-radar women.
So too does theater. There’s A Piece of My Heart, which tells the story of women in the Vietnam War, and Toni Stone, about the first woman to play in a men’s pro baseball league. And there’s Silent Sky, now playing at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills.
Silent Sky tells the true story of another unsung woman who made a difference, Henrietta Leavitt (Abigail Stewart), who pursued her passion for astronomy in the early 1900s. Recruited by the Harvard Observatory and dismissive of farm life, she leaves behind her family in Wisconsin hoping to map the sky. Her sister Margaret (Tammy Mora), who is about to marry, begs her to stay, but Henrietta wants nothing less than to change the world.
Arriving in Cambridge, Leavitt finds she is relegated to a group of women called, yes, computers. Her supervisor, Peter Shaw (Dalen Carlson) dismisses her request to see the head of the Observatory and tells her she should be grateful to have her “girl job.” She is to examine glass plates containing images of outer space. The computers expand what’s already the largest stellar archive in the world—and are told to resist the urge to touch the telescope or analyze the data they compile.
Despite these admonishments and their lowly position, the women are doing important work. Williamina Fleming (Amy Tolsky) has discovered stars. Annie Cannon (Marie Broderick) has created standards for star classifications. And Henrietta Leavitt strives to have an influence as well.
As unexpected romance and her father’s illness disrupts her dreams, Leavitt is torn between family, career and love. As a woman, she must choose only one.
The play, written by Lauren Gunderson, is well-told, although the first act feels about 10 minutes too long. Tension builds in the second act toward a triumphant ending. As Leavitt, Abigail Stewart shows great range, from confident to despairing. Amy Tosky is the warm heart that holds the “computers” together; Marie Broderick displays strength while letting her softer side show through. Tammy Mora beautifully portrays a sister’s support. And Dalen Carlson sensitively portrays a smitten love interest who knows the object of his affection is light years ahead of him in intellect.
This story combining science and emotion is well-served by director Ann Hearn Tobolowsky’s creative vision. The simple multi-level set easily serves as multiple locations; added projections expand its impact.
Leavitt’s is a story worth learning, and Silent Sky does her proud.
Silent Sky runs through April 17, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm, at Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills. Admission is $35 and tickets are available here. There’s free parking in the Beverly Hills High School parking garage adjacent to the theater entrance. Audience members must be vaccinated and boosted, but masks are optional.