You don’t need The Great Refractor to see the charms in Perseverance Theatre’s latest production.
“Silent Sky” boasts a winning cast, memorable set and aggressively pleasant script by playwright Lauren Gunderson that shine brightly without any assistance from Harvard College Observatory’s famous telescope.
The play tells a story inspired by the real life of Henrietta Swan Leavitt (Shelley Virginia), a tenacious woman whose drive for astronomic answers led to discoveries that changed the way humanity understood its placement in the universe.
After being hired by the observatory in 1900, Henrietta’s work at Harvard takes her away from an unseen and ill-fated father and her sister, Margaret (Irene Martinko). She’s ushered into the company of fellow star fiends Williamina Fleming (Diane Fleeks) and Annie Cannon (Margeaux Ljungberg). Like Henrietta, who at first misunderstands her new position, the other women have been hired to record but not analyze data.
Fleeks gives Fleming impish energy that plays well off of Ljungberg’s steely portrayal of an irascible lead researcher. Cannon and Fleming both serve as mentors and foils for the younger Henrietta, whose manic desire to better understand the universe is brought to infectious life by Virginia.
Peter Shaw (Ty Hewitt), an occasionally boorish but mostly well-meaning supervisor, also works with the three women, and provides some of the play’s only conflict.
Shaw, a fictional character created for the play, is maybe its most important character, even if he’s written to almost assuredly be no one’s favorite. A delightfully clumsy, slow-developing romance between Peter and Henrietta either drives or adds a layer to every conflict in “Silent Sky,” and without that wrinkle, the play would sorely miss tension.
Rescuing little-known early astronomers from the fringes of textbooks and bringing them to the stage is admirable, but the result is a depiction of three co-workers mostly getting along and excelling in their work.
“Silent Sky” is a moving story told by Perseverance Theatre with snap and style, but it’s also a play that works so hard to champion its subject matter while also explaining some 20th Century astronomy basics that the narrative feels thin.
While Henrietta and her co-workers do comment on their plight as women in a male-dominated field living in a nation where they’re not allowed to vote, the negatives are generally told and not shown.
There is a work-vs.-home struggle in the play, but without the added threat of lost romance, the task that temporarily draws Henrietta back to Wisconsin would seem so much more important than her Boston-based work that there would be no contest.
Otherwise, it’s generally smooth sailing for the characters in “Silent Sky.” Every relationship can be repaired after a heated exchange and death is not to be feared. Even conflict between the God-fearing Margaret and Henrietta, which features great facial acting by Martinko, just sort of fizzles out.
That’s not totally a condemnation. The indomitable positivity may rankle some, it may sit just right for others who enjoy omnipresent cheer.
Plus, the Disney-fied qualities that got under my skin should make it an absolute home run with younger audiences.
“Silent Sky” would probably get tagged with a PG rating for some extremely mild profanity and cheeky use of the word sex, but it’s otherwise squeaky clean and doesn’t talk down to its audience in a way that a middle school-aged viewer might hate.
Despite the obvious youth appeal, there is a night’s sky worth of bright spots for adults, too.
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.
Know & Go
What: “Silent Sky”
When: 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: $35-$45. There is a pay-as-you-can performance 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.
The performances, moments of humor and empowerment message in “Silent Sky” will land with audiences of any age.