Photos by Michael Penn | capital city weekly                                Diane Fleeks, left, Shelley Virginia, center, and Margeaux Ljungberg rehearse in front of an invited audience for Perseverance Theatre’s production of “Silent Sky” on Tuesday. They each portray women who made profound contributions to astronomy while working at Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s.

Photos by Michael Penn | capital city weekly Diane Fleeks, left, Shelley Virginia, center, and Margeaux Ljungberg rehearse in front of an invited audience for Perseverance Theatre’s production of “Silent Sky” on Tuesday. They each portray women who made profound contributions to astronomy while working at Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s.

Eyes to the ‘Sky’: Perseverance Theatre play focuses on women who changed how we see the stars

“Silent Sky” opens Friday at the theater.

Perseverance Theatre’s latest play tells the story of both literal stars and women who deserve to be stars for their contributions to astronomy.

“Silent Sky” which opens Friday at the theater, tells a story inspired by real life women who were hired to perform clerical work at the Harvard Observatory near the turn of the 20th Century but escaped their societal pigeonholes to make serious and lasting contributions to science.

“This story itself is such a wonderful highlight of women and women that you don’t get to hear about,” said Shelley Virginia of Anchorage, who plays Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Tuesday in a pre-dress rehearsal interview. “I had never heard of any of these women — Annie Cannon, Williamina Fleming, Henrietta Swan — and they discovered things that we are still using today. How to measure the universe, classifying the stars, and you don’t learn about it in history class, and it’s like, why?”

Photos by Michael Penn | Capital City Weekly                                Shelley Virginia portrays Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose discoveries helped create the standard used to measure the distance of far-off galaxies.

Photos by Michael Penn | Capital City Weekly Shelley Virginia portrays Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose discoveries helped create the standard used to measure the distance of far-off galaxies.

Plus, Margeaux Ljungberg of Juneau, who plays Annie Cannon, said “Silent Sky” is rare in that its cast mostly consists of women, but the play does not pit female characters against each other.

“It shouldn’t be unique to have a story about women where no one is playing the sex kitten,” Ljunberg said. “No one is trying to go behind someone’s back and tear them down, and how wonderful is that because that’s how real, genuine female relationships are.”

Irene Martinko of Juneau, who plays Margaret Leavitt, pointed out “Silent Sky” passes the “Bechdel test.” The Bechdel test asks whether a work features two women characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. It’s not necessarily an indicator of quality — “Marriage Story” does not pass the test, and “Happy Death Day 2U” does, according to bechdeltest.com — but it is a way of considering the type of story being told and a work’s worldview.

Perseverance Theatre’s next play, “Fun Home,” is based on a book by Alison Bechdel, who is the test’s namesake.

“It’s just women who are able to make different valid choices about their lives, and they’re not shamed,” Martinko said.

Diane Fleeks, left, Shelley Virginia, center, and Margeaux Ljungberg in“Silent Sky.”

Diane Fleeks, left, Shelley Virginia, center, and Margeaux Ljungberg in“Silent Sky.”

She said both her character, who is a homemaker, and the science-minded women who work at the observatory are treated as equals in “Silent Sky.”

The All-Alaskan cast of “Silent Sky” said a play with action driven by calculations and closely studying vast expanses of night sky is brought to vibrant life by both playwright’s Lauren Gunderson’s fast-paced writing and “absolutely, stunningly beautiful” projections.

Diane Fleeks of Fairbanks, who plays Fleming, said despite public perception, science is exciting.

“It’s just cool to find new stuff,” Fleeks said. “I come from a science background myself, I’m kind of new to all of this acting stuff. So when we get to that moment where we’re talking about the possibilities that come from her discoveries, and ‘You can skip from star to star,’ is one of the lines, and it is so cool, and it is so fun. So many of us are educated to think science isn’t fun, but it is, it really is.”

Passion and excitement for science is what ultimately led the women who inspired the play to make discoveries and analyze data, cast members said, and they’re glad those contributions will receive public attention through “Silent Sky.”

Ty Hewitt, right, and Shelley Virginia dance in a scene in “Silent Sky.” The production features an all-Alaskan cast. (Michael Penn | Capital City Weekly)

Ty Hewitt, right, and Shelley Virginia dance in a scene in “Silent Sky.” The production features an all-Alaskan cast. (Michael Penn | Capital City Weekly)

“Four women in the space of about 20 years in Harvard came up with the majority of discoveries that changed everything, and we don’t know the names,” said Ty Hewitt of Anchorage, who plays Peter Shaw in the show. “I didn’t know any of them. I maybe heard the name Annie Cannon. I know the name Hubble, I should damn well know the names Leavitt, Cannon, Fleming and Payne.”

A cast member chimed in that those names are now more widely known thanks to “Silent Sky.”

“We do now,” Hewitt said. “Thanks to Lauren Gunderson, we do now.”

• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.

Know & Go

What: “Silent Sky”

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 9, Friday, Jan. 10 and Saturday, Jan. 11; 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 12; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16-18 and 4 p.m. Jan. 19; 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23-Jan. 25 and 4 p.m. Jan. 26; 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29-Feb. 1 and 4 p.m. Feb. 2.

Where: Perseverance Theatre, 914 3rd St., Douglas

Admission: $26.25-$45. There is a pay-as-you-can preview Thursday, Jan. 12. Pay-as-you-can performances are Sunday, Jan. 12 and Thursday, Jan. 16. Wednesday, Jan. 22 is Juneau Arts Night and all tickets are $17.50. Tickets can be purchased online at ptalaska.org or by calling 463-8497.

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