Tufts University Presents Lauren Gundersons “Silent Sky,” Opening Night friday April 30th, 2021, Reviewed
Lauren Gunderson is a name you must see over and over again if you review touring companies and amateur theatricals, in the post-#metoo era, Lauren undoubtedly has her side of the street paved: her plays are about women, forgotten or underappreciated, despite their contributions to science and the arts, and discovered and represented anew in art, in plays. Considered the Godmother of post-feminism storytelling, whose vision of women has held sway not just over college kids trying to find the balance of fairness in a country where the power structure is far from ready to shift, for over a decade, what Gunderson lacks in poetics she makes up for on a solid structural basis (she teaches playwriting). Where the US pay off reparations through posthumous hosannas, she makes the stubborn past open to change and review. It is hard to imagine a movie like 2016’s “Hidden Figures” without Gunderson paving the way.
So, when freelance director and visiting artist Bridget O’Leary returned again to “Silent Sky” and Tuft’s Department of Theatre, Dance And Performance Studies looked for the theatrical experience that places itself where it needs to be in these strange days; the choice of Lauren’s “Silent Sky,” is perfect in synch with the peace and light of the University’s motto. But if there is peace and light, and if the play itself has a very sad undertow where literal genius is hard to be heard because of wretched sexism, the actual presentation is not just screed (Gunderson is too smart at drama for screed), but a type of performance art where all the actors wear face shields throughout the play, an odd, disturbing and yet a written large counter-text: follow the science.
It is almost possible to pull off, it asks the audience to ignore their own eyes in a play about appearances, to look past what they are seeing, and it forces the actors to deal with acting under duress, acting where the acting they act is in full view. In some manner, it can’t work, and yet it seems to. Watching the free stream yesterday, filmed on stage at an earlier date, in the closest of close-ups the actors can’t use their faces to act, you wonder about director O’Leary, and how she deals with restrictions that put you in mind of how women at the turn of the 19th century were restricted and constricted, it is a serendipitous metaphor. O’Leary clearly sees and embraces the hall of mirrors production, and while I am not certain how involved Gunderson was in the production, and I am not sure if the opening quote from Annie Cannon (“In our troubled days it is good to have something outside our planet, something fine and distant for comfort”) is a comfort in our desperate hours, I am sure the production is comforting; the essence of the production is a whirling of metaphors in support of her play, it may be a feminist play first, but it is an ode to science as well: it says, this will pass and we will return because science (and women) will save us.
Gunderson has written before about missing actors on the stage of history, whether from science, or the arts, and it is a better way to reach people than the New York Time’s revised obituaries of hidden figures. According to the New Yorker (here), Gunderson has “… revived Émilie du Châtelet, an Enlightenment genius who revised Newton’s laws of motion; Olympe de Gouges, a playwright who fought for women’s equality in the French Revolution; and Henrietta Leavitt, a twentieth-century Harvard astronomer who figured out how to measure the distance between Earth and the stars.” “Silent Sky” is the one about Henrietta Leavitt.
It is a choice role, an outstanding lead performance, and the centrifugal force of the evening. During the early 20th century, the Radcliffe graduate was hired at Harvard Observatory as a “computer” (a brain numbing job of information entry) to monitor star brightness and distance, along with other women, while men did the heavy lifting. She did that and then she worked all night on studying the distance of the stars and changed the world. As performed by Caitlin Morley, Morley’s mathematics is both poetic flight and stoiac battle. The woman we see at the start of the play, beneath the evening stars, is the same tough mind we see impatiently waiting for the man who hired her a few scenes later, she teeters on the self aware and Ethan Lipson as the assistant to the head astronomer, has a nervous glamour that functions as gender role reversal (I know, I know, relax), “All you’ve thus far conveyed is that I am in some kind of Math harem waiting to be picked…” Morley snaps at power), Sloane Kelly as Henrietta’s nagging sister, Margaret Leavitt is so sweet and the entire five piece ensemble work in the light and pleasurable play like a locked in rock band, a switching and sharing as the stage pulleys effortlessly shift from scene to the other while maintaining a tone of brilliant forward thinking. Along with Morley, Kelly, and Ethan, Karishma Chouhan brings force as Annie Cannon, and as the maid turned astronomer Tatyana Emery is a fun Willamina Fleming.
Putting all expedient factors aside, there is a sustaining mix of art, love, and the poetry of deepest space told from a name that should be much better known in history. Caitlin as Henrietta is so clever she is almost a magnet for her friends, and lover. It is a light hearted production, not weighed down by either its science or hindsight. But there are other aspects here, one written there already and the other a sign of our times not Henrietta’s, not even Gunderson’s.
1 – Henrietta contracted a disease and was growing deaf. For the woman, it is another level in which she has to get through. That like her sex as a whole, two of the main characters are deaf, being deaf was added to being female -an affliction to be made the better for. That is true, and is a slot in the play parts.
2 – The entire cast were wearing face shields. This must have been a director’s choice, In 2021, I would assume there were enough covid fast tests to keep the cast safe, so why? Gunderson, unlike, say, Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” does not use science as its central metaphor. Gunderson tells her story straightforwardly firm in the knowledge that the science is safe to be only science, it tells itself. But by using the face guards, the Tufts production returns the argument that has been rolling through the country of science versus culture. In a story that is also about the science, it reminds you why.
3 – There was no audience.
It left the fine ensemble of actors performing for each other and a roving camera, and only later to an audience that they can’t see. All this hard work and yet no real feedback.
The evening worked like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Henrietta discovered the period-luminosity relationship for Cepheid variables, how the relative brightness of stars told how far away they were from earth. But the discovery isn’t a metaphor in itself, indeed its effect, starting with the Hubble Telescope, has been a fundamental change in physics and in how we now have the multiverse, it is the grown-ups room, is important simply in itself. It is worth telling because Leavitt is worth remembering and that is first and foremost. Sadly, Henrietta would die at the age of fifty-three, that cutting short is a real loss for astrology.
And the actors are working in a multiverse, both the early 1900s that with its period clothes and lighting and yet simple staging of the laboratory, the outdoors, and her home translates to simply shifts in the deck and a seamless unobtrusiveness where the cameras are all obstruction and vision pinning. A closeness to the stage where more is revealed by where our attention through the camera work tells us to watch, than the theatre provides. And that is, of course, the job, but wearing masks throughout, we are being told to suspend not disbelief but belief, by making us a full part of right now, they are commenting on right now as well as then. It suggests that clearly the battle for women is not over. And the cool, speedy, and moving production is the antidote for toxic masculinity heaviness. The play sets Henrietta Leavitt free from the stuffiness of an earlier era by creating the stuffiness of our current one and then ignoring it.