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Theater review: 'Silent Sky' at South Coast Repertory

April 12, 2011 |  3:00 pm

SilentSkyIs the sky sexless? A female astronomer bumps up against the celestial ceiling in “Silent Sky,” Lauren Gunderson’s period dramedy now at South Coast Repertory. The result — like its protagonist — is equal parts polished, curious and frustrating.

Working as an assistant at the Harvard College Observatory in the 1910s, Henrietta Leavitt made a revolutionary discovery that helped prove the universe was larger than the Milky Way. Leavitt has been largely ignored by historians until George Johnson’s recent biography, a major source for Gunderson’s play. 

Mixing droll domestic drama and scientific detection, Gunderson presents Henrietta (Monette Magrath) as a headstrong pastor’s daughter who leaves her beloved sister, Margaret (Erin Cottrell), to work as a human computer counting stars for male scientists at Cambridge. Henrietta chafes at being part of a “harem” but befriends two wisecracking co-workers, Annie and Williamina (Colette Kilroy and Amelia White, both excellent). Soon she finds herself equally drawn to the mysteries of luminous cepheids and shy supervisor Peter (Nick Toren).

John Iacovelli’s gorgeously minimalist, midnight blue set features an upstage screen that arcs open as if revealing the night sky from an observatory. Enhanced by York Kennedy’s evocative lighting and John Crawford’s projection design, the stage resembles a telescope turned on the stars.

Yet “Silent Sky” doesn’t always match the scale of Henrietta’s galaxies. Director Anne Justine D’Zmura frames this proto-feminist story as a halting, geeky rom-com, making the play’s occasional leaps toward the sublime seem forced. Relationships and storytelling points feel sketched rather than explored. And Gunderson, who has written extensively on science and theater, doesn’t seem to trust the audience to dig in for a more rigorous examination of Henrietta’s research. 

Henrietta says she longs to know “exactly where we are.” A rich premise for a play about stargazing, but Gunderson hasn’t attacked that question with the depth her heroine displayed a century ago. With its short scenes and staccato rhythms, the production has Magrath moving awkwardly between exacting scientist and never-been-kissed girlishness. We’re never quite immersed in her world, or her soul. Given how few plays exist about female scientists dying to be taken seriously, it’s disappointing to feel that Gunderson’s admirable effort, despite its wit, is a missed opportunity.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

“Silent Sky,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 1. $28-$66. (714) 708-5555 or Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. 

Photo: Monette Magrath in "Silent Sky." Credit: Henry DiRocco / South Coast Repertory.