Aldersgate Church Community Theater opened its production of Silent Sky this week, and the play left stars in my eyes and illuminated my mind. Silent Sky was written with wit and vision by Lauren Gunderson, directed with a brilliant conceptualization by Marzanne Claiborne, and embellished with delightful original music by Jenny Giering.
The searing story follows the true life events of female astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (played by Madeline Byrd), and her struggles to work in a male-dominated field in the early 1900s. In 1900, Leavitt was part of the Harvard University team mapping constellations. Not only is she not given credit for the work she does, but she is not even permitted to access the telescope; she’s allowed only to log the stars photographed by the men in the department. Madeline Byrd gives a passionate portrayal of Leavitt, easily transmitting her intensity and commitment to astronomy and the impact that her passion has on her family and colleagues.
Melissa Dunlap plays Henrietta’s sister Margaret Leavitt with true warmth. During her scenes, the set is saturated in warmth both physically and emotionally. Dunlap is witty, loving, and a safe space for Henrietta. While Margaret is more traditional than Henrietta — she plays piano and works on the family farm — it is Margaret (and her piano) that inspires Henrietta to think of the stars in a way that ends up making history.
The cast is delightfully and period-appropriately dressed by Costume Designer Joan Lawrence. The lighting, designed by Ken and Patti Crowley, assisted by Jeff Auerbach and Kimberly Cargo, pivots between warm and cold, giving a layered ambiance to Silent Sky that reinforces the struggles and triumphs of Henrietta’s journey. The set, primarily the office space in which Henrietta works, is designed by De Nicholson Lamb. It is white, bare, and static, which gives a magnificent insight into Henrietta’s internal world. Choreographer and Intimacy Coordinator Melissa Dunlap imaginatively uses the space and lighting to explore the different worlds within Silent Sky like family, relationships, love, and life.
In the office, we find a standout in Annie Cannon, played by Kate Ives, whose embodiment of a shoot-from-the-hip, no-nonsense, don’t-mess-with-me woman is a lively addition to the stale state of the other women in the office, who come across as quite repressed. One of those women, Williamina Fleming, is played by Elizabeth Replogle, who portrays a humorous, kindhearted Scottish woman always ready to lighten the tone with her entertaining train of thought. Peter Shaw, the only male in the cast, played by Mic Townsend, is at once warm and starry-eyed and also part of the masculine machine that kept women in the back room despite their worth, contributions, and capabilities.
Silent Sky reminds us not only of the importance of equality but of life itself. As Henrietta gains it all while simultaneously losing it all, we understand that both hearts and stars can be bright forces leading us beyond limitations. Silent Sky is a cerebral play, and in Director Claiborne’s iteration, at times nothing more than talking heads on a plain stage. And yet, in defying the standards of her day, Henrietta finally achieved happiness and worth through her pursuit of astronomy. That is the crux of the play: that we can all find our truths despite the barriers or odds stacked against us.
Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Silent Sky plays through April 2, 2023, presented by Aldersgate Church Community Theater located 1301 Collingwood Road, Alexandria, VA. Tickets ($17.39 with service fee for senior, student, and active-duty military; and $20.57 with service fee for general admission) can be purchased online. Telephone service is temporarily unavailable.
COVID Safety: For your health and safety, we invite you to wear your mask while in the building. All cast and crew are fully vaccinated and boosted.
Stage Manager: Donna Reynolds
Assisted by Joel Durgavich, Bob Enck
Producers: Charles Dragonette and Marg Soroos
Set Construction: Leah and Shah Choudhury
Lighting Design by Ken and Patti Crowley, assisted by Jeff Auerbach and Kimberly Cargo
Assisted by Marg Soroos, De Nicholson Lamb
Properties Design: Margaret Chapman
Hair & Makeup: Robin Maline
Set Painting: De Nicholson Lamb, Bev Benda
Sound Design: Alan Wray
Photographer: Howard Soroos