Peninsula Players Theatre, America’s oldest professional resident summer theater and Door County’s theatrical icon, is excited to announce the opening of “Silent Sky” by Lauren Gunderson. “Silent Sky” tells the story of unsung astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose discoveries at Harvard Observatory in the 1890s opened the galaxies above. “Silent Sky” performs August 21 through September 1.
“Silent Sky” is based on the life of Leavitt and the other “human computers,” as they were called, at Harvard Observatory in the 19th century. Leavitt, a Radcliffe graduate, is invited to join a dedicated group of women, including Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, who work at the Harvard Observatory charting the stars.
“People are really moved by it (‘Silent Sky’), which moves me,” Gunderson said in a 2015 interview with Theatrical Outfit. “It is kind of why we do this crazy business. To tell stories that move people.
“(‘Silent Sky’) is moving (to) women who need more stories told about their heroes and their hopes. It is moving men. I remember several fathers coming out from the play and saying, ‘I need to call my daughter and tell her I love her.”
In “Silent Sky,” Leavitt decides to leave her pastor father and sister Margaret at home in Wisconsin for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When she arrives at the observatory, she learns she isn’t allowed to touch the telescope or express an original idea. Instead, she and her female co-workers work as “human computers” and chart the stars using math and measurement for Dr. Pickering, renowned astronomer.
In a time when women did not have careers, let alone theorize and make scientific discoveries, Leavitt and her fellow “computers” trade the comforts of domestic life for their dedication to science. Staying long hours after each workday to pursue her own scientific theories, she discovers a technique that makes it possible to measure the distance to stars by their pulsating light. Astounding truths cascade from this single shocking discovery, upending her colleagues’ views of themselves, each other and the universe itself.
Cannon, Fleming and Leavitt all made astronomical discoveries while at Harvard. Cannon’s cataloging work was instrumental in the development of contemporary stellar classification. Fleming helped develop a common designation system for stars and is credited for discovering the Horsehead Nebula in 1888.
Leavitt’s discovery provided astronomers with the first “standard candle” with which to measure the distance to faraway galaxies. Leavitt noted that some of the brighter variables’ period of fluctuation is related to their brightness. Further study confirmed this discovery, which came to be known as the “period-luminosity relationship” or “Leavitt’s Law.”
“What is so fully realized in (‘Silent Sky’)… is this conversation between opposites that are throughout the world,” Gunderson said. “We have science and faith talking to each other; we have math and music talking to each other. It is a really fluid and interesting theatrical conversation that you get to be a part of.”
Gunderson is a screenwriter and author, recognized as the most-produced living playwright by American Theatre magazine in 2016. During the 2017-2018 theater season, she had 27 productions on stage. Her work has received national theater and fiction awards as well as a Sloan Science & Film Award (2008) for her screenplay “Grand Unification.” She also co-wrote the book for “The Happy Elf,” the Christmas musical with music and lyrics by Harry Connick Jr.
“It is a lot to ask for one play to be witty and intellectual, yet interlaced with humor and to be soulful and full of ideas,” Artistic Director Greg Vinkler said. “‘Silent Sky’ is all of that, and more. Henrietta made a brilliant discovery that allowed scientists to find faraway galaxies and was directly linked to the discoveries of Edwin Hubble. ‘Silent Sky’ is a very human story that not only awes but makes us laugh often and loudly.”
Elizabeth Margolius, who directed the Peninsula Players’ production of “Miss Holmes” and “The Bridges of Madison County” is directing this true story of discovery. Margolius is a Chicago and upstate New York-based multiple Jeff Award-nominated stage and movement director. Her primary focus is directing contemporary non-traditional music theater, opera, and plays as well as re-imagining the classics. Her recent projects include “Queen of the Mist” for Firebrand Theatre (Chicago) and “The Scarlet Ibis” for Chicago Opera Theater.
“The story and work of Henrietta Leavitt and her colleagues, Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, were completely unknown to me before I was asked to direct this gorgeous play,” Margolius said. “The discoveries that these three women made (along with many other women a that time) laid the groundwork for creating a standard for measuring distance in space. This led to the stunning realization that there are things outside of our galaxy – and even further, that our universe is indeed vast, and our galaxy could be one of many. ‘Silent Sky,’ beautifully written by Lauren Gunderson, chronicles the story of these incredible women and their work in a way which we can all relate – and perhaps what I love the most, is the ability of this piece to continue to inspire questions and wonder about what lies beyond our understanding of the here and the hereafter.”
Cassandra Bissell, who amazed Door County audiences as Miss Holmes last season, will portray Henrietta. Bissell and her fellow castmates also performed in the Peninsula Players production of “A Murder is Announced.” “An intimate but absolutely mighty cast – Cassandra, Neil Brookshire, Ashley Lanyon, Carmen Roman and Penny Slusher – portray these complicated characters with a truthfulness that will bring the audience directly into the minds and hearts of their worlds,” Margolius said. “Each of these talented actors have created distinct but recognizable characters that we are in awe of, and yet are familiar. They have truly been a joy to work and explore with, and I believe audiences will experience an ensemble who will make their hearts soar.”
Neil Brookshire (“Miss Holmes,” “The 39 Steps”) is cast as an astronomer’s assistant, Peter; Ashley Lanyon (“Ghost The Musical” and “Nunsense”), as Henrietta’s more traditional sister, Margaret; Carmen Roman (“Alabama Story,” “Lombardi”), as Williamina Fleming, a bright Scottish immigrant; and Penny Slusher, (“Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime,” “Chapatti”) as Annie Cannon, the leader of the “human computers.”
The entire cast has numerous regional and international theater credits ranging from performing at Arizona Theatre Co., the Boise Contemporary Theater, Utah Shakespeare Festival, the national tour of “Angels in America” to “August: Osage County” with Steppenwolf Theatre at the Sydney Theatre. Their Chicago stages including Court Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Writers Theatre as well as film/television credits such as “Law and Order: SVU” and “Boss.”
“Silent Sky” is sponsored by Main Street Market.
Peninsula Players is a professional, not-for-profit theater that collaborates with members of Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), the union of professional actors and stage managers; United Scenic Artists (USA), a labor union and professional association of Designers, Artists and Craftspeople; and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), a theatrical union of stage directors and choreographers.
The creative team includes award-winning regional designers who will transport audiences to the scientific world of the 1890s. The designers of “Silent Sky” include scenic designer Jack Magaw; costume designer Kärin Simonson Kopischke; sound designer Joe Court; lighting designer Stephen Roy White and properties designer Emily Hartig, who is making her debut at Peninsula Players.
“Silent Sky” performs Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; except for Sunday, September 1 at 4 p.m. Individual ticket prices range from $40 to $46. Group rates are available for 15 and more. There are no performances on Mondays. For more information or to reserve tickets, call the Peninsula Players Box Office at (920) 868-3287 or visit the website at www.peninsulaplayers.com.