Before there were machines called computers, there were women called computers, meaning, according to Peter Shaw (Drew Doyle) in the play Silent Sky at Olympia Little Theatre, “one who computes.” Female scientists who were highly overqualified and severely underpaid were hired to do dull, routine jobs the male scientists wouldn’t or couldn’t do. One of these female “computers,” Henrietta Swan Leavitt (played to perfection by Paige Doyle), made a monumental astronomical discovery that was credited to her male employers until a century later. Her equally brilliant and dedicated fellow scientists, Annie Jump Cannon (Heather R. Christopher) and Williamina Fleming (Erin Quinn Valcho), were deserving of equal credit for their invaluable contributions to science — but were likewise overlooked.
Silent Sky, written by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Deane Shellman, tells the story of these pioneering scientists. While their jobs might have been tediously detail-oriented, the play is anything but tedious. It is romantic, poetic, tender in places and highly dramatic.
It opens with a beautifully poetic scene of Leavitt standing by a porch rail on her family’s Wisconsin ranch in 1900. She gazes at the night sky and talks about the wonders of the heavens — wonders and mysteries, because at the time we didn’t have a clue as to where we were in the cosmos. How far away were those stars? Were there other galaxies beyond our Milky Way? The mystery and poetry of this opening scene is enhanced by a projected starfield in the background and mood lighting by Olivia Burlingame. (The scenic designer is Jeannie Beirne.)
The drama arises from relationships between Leavitt and her sister Margaret (Tessa Fairfortune), Leavitt and her coworkers Cannon and Fleming, and between Leavitt and Shaw, the only male character in the show. Each of the three “computers” has a distinct personality, skillfully acted by Christopher, Doyle and Quinn Valcho. Leavitt is driven and passionate. She loves her family but is neglectful of them due to her unrelenting drive toward astronomical explorations. Cannon is uptight and all business at first, seemingly mean-spirited, but there’s a more joyful woman underneath — with a passion not just for astronomy but also for suffrage. Christopher makes this complex character shine. Fleming is the playful and kind peacemaker. Quinn Valcho does a great job with her Scottish accent, which is clearly recognizable but not overdone. Fairfortune handles the role of Margaret with grace, allowing the complexities beneath the surface of her relationship with Henrietta to play out without becoming overblown even under strain. Drew Doyle plays the restrained and stuffy (at first) Shaw with a zest that bursts from the seams. It’s wonderful to see accomplished actors playing the parts of these female scientists, who have for too long been overlooked.
As we all know, there is an anti-science strain in our society that denies its truth for political expediency. For this reason, we need plays like this more than ever. But Silent Sky is more than science and vindication for women who’ve been historically demeaned. It’s drama and poetry and family conflict. There’s even a love story at the heart of it. The director, cast and crew have done an exemplary job of bringing to Olympia a play you owe it to yourself to see.
(This review appears courtesy of The Weekly Volcano.)
What: Silent Sky
Where: Olympia Little Theatre,
1925 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia
When: 7:25 p.m. Thursdays – Saturdays except Oct. 14;
1:55 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 16
How much: $10-$15
Get tickets: 360-786-9484 | OLT