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"The pulsing isn't random. There is a pattern. The brightest stars take the longest to blink. We can skip star to star across the deepest space until we know exactly where we are," exclaims Henrietta Leavitt in a moment of epiphany in Lauren Gunderson's lyrical play "Silent Sky," making its regional premiere at Pygmalion Productions. Leavitt has spent her life trying to discover "where we are" in the universe and in the process determining where she is.
One of the most satisfying things about Gunderson's play, which is a popular pick across regional theaters this season, is that it is as much about self-fulfillment as it is about space exploration. At the dawn of the 20th century, when Einstein is about to propose the theory of relativity and send science spinning, Henrietta travels from her home in Wisconsin to take a job at the renowned Harvard College Observatory "mapping the sky … doing what has never been done before," as her supervisor, Annie Cannon, puts it. "This could be my best life, and it's right in front of me," Henrietta excitedly tells her sister, Margaret.
Unfortunately, when she gets there, she learns that, like the other women "computers," she isn't allowed to use the Great Refractor, the world's largest telescope. Instead, their job is categorizing the data from photographs "slices of heaven" male astronomers take of the sky. This only intensifies Henrietta's curiosity, and she becomes fascinated with a classification of pulsing stars called Cepheids in the Magellanic clouds: Can their brightness and variation be translated into distance? Her discoveries pave the way for the first attempts to measure the universe and the work of Edwin Hubble.
Gunderson's poetic play relies on counterpointed and complementary characters. Margaret has a much more traditional definition of heaven, derived from their Congregationalist minister father, but, ironically, her music inspires Henrietta's breakthrough moment. Although she doesn't understand her sister's choices, Margaret is unfailingly supportive. And Gunderson has created the character of Peter Shaw, the women's liaison to the male astronomers, who begins as Henrietta's prickly adversary and mellows into an admirer and love interest. Gunderson energizes the letters between Henrietta and these two characters by counterpointing their lines, and director Mark Fossen positions the actors upstage and downstage on Thomas George's multilevel set to visually reinforce the dynamic linking them.
The complementary characters are Annie and Williamina Fleming, the women Henrietta works with, who are bright and outspoken about the contributions they make. "We are cleaning up the universe for the men," Williamina says. "And making fun of them behind their backs. It's worked for centuries."
"Silent Sky" moves smoothly and seamlessly due to Fossen's direction and the sharply etched performances of a well-balanced cast. Hannah Minshew's inquisitive, self-possessed Henrietta contrasts with Brenda Hattingh's practical, family-oriented Margaret. Michael Scott Johnson softens Peter's intellectual arrogance with bumbling charm. And Elizabeth Golden's stern, but motherly, Annie and Teresa Sanderson's irreverent and feisty Williamina are Henrietta's staunch allies.
Fossen moves people into constantly shifting patterns in Pilar Davis' warm white and blue spotlighting. The sea of Cepheids behind George's symmetrical, businesslike set carries us into the night sky as the story unfolds. Michael Nielsen's period costumes are richly detailed, and the piano music and natural sounds of Joe Killian's sound design connect us to the larger world.
As "Silent Sky" winds down, Henrietta reflects, "The real point is seeing something bigger and knowing we're a small part of it, if we're lucky. In the end that is a life well lived." Gunderson's vibrant play puts us in touch with one of those lives.
Pygmalion's production vividly chronicles the contributions of another of science's "hidden figures."
When • Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 13 with an extra matinee on Saturday, May 13, at 2 p.m.
Where • Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20; $15 for students and seniors; pygmalionproductions.org
Running time • Two hours (including an intermission)