Silent Sky: a good night under the stars

publicity photo for Silent Sky

Henrietta (Jenna Hill) and Peter (Karthik Kadam) pretend to talk about the cosmos. (Photo by Doug Williams)


Writing this review of United Players’ production of Silent Sky isn’t as challenging as, say, astrophysics, but it’s still tricky, okay?

I enjoyed the show a lot. Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s script about the turn-of-the-twentieth-century career of pioneering astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt is witty and moving.

Leavitt’s task as a “computer” at the Harvard College Observatory was to record information from photographic plates about the brightness of stars. As a clerk — and, crucially, as a woman — she wasn’t allowed to look through the telescope. But, working from her observations of the brightness and pulsations of certain stars, Leavitt became the first to understand how to measure the distance to faraway galaxies. It was a watershed achievement.

Under Laura McLean’s direction, the acting in this UP production sparkles. Jenna Hill is driven and vulnerable as Henrietta. Rebecca DeBoer’s deeply felt portrait makes it clear that Henrietta’s sister Margaret is the heart of their family. And Karthik Kadam is subtley charming as Henrietta’s awkward suitor Peter Shaw, a less passionate but, because of his maleness, more privileged astronomer.

But here’s the thing: Gunderson invented Peter Shaw. She couldn’t resist fueling — with an invented romance — a play about Leavitt’s scientific legacy. As far as I can tell, Gunderson also invented Margaret’s musical talent so that she could build in a dialectic between art and science. In Gunderson’s script, there’s a conflict between Margaret’s Christian faith and Henrietta’s lack of it, but, in real life, Henrietta was devout. Her two siblings were named Mira and Roswell.

That’s a lot of artistic license. Gunderson seems to be trying to restore Leavitt’s reputation, but what’s the point if she had to make up a fictional character to do it?

Still, Gunderson’s evocation of the beauty of the cosmos and her treatment of Leavitt’s mortality are moving. And director McLean’s production, with tailored costumes by Julie White, restrained sound design by Nico Dicecco, and evocative original music by Jenny Giering is extremely handsome. This is the most successful United Players production in a long time.

If only the script were more true.

SILENT SKY By Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Laura McLean. This United Players production is available to stream until April 18. Here’s where to get tickets

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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