The true star of True North Theatre’s “Silent Sky” is the Maynard Jordan Planetarium at the University of Maine.
The dome where the constellations and photographs are projected essentially act as the set backdrop even though they are overhead. Seeing the night sky while the characters talk about charting the stars is fascinating and gives theatergoers a greater understanding of how important the work done by women in the early 20th century was and still is.
First performed in 2015, “Silent Sky” tells the story of Henrietta Leavitt and her colleagues, who studied photographic plates of the stars taken by telescopes, although they were not allowed to look through the telescope because they were women.
The women were known as human computers at Harvard University.
Lauren Gunderson, one of the most produced playwrights in the country, tells Leavitt’s story from the time the mathematician and astronomer went to work on the project until her early death from stomach cancer in 1921 at the age of 53.
Guderson added a romance between Leavitt and her male supervisor. That plot is a distraction from the scientific and feminist themes of the play, but a fine performance from the only male cast member makes it work in this production.
Director Angela Bonacasa had planned to produce the show in 2020. She said Sunday that she was walking across the Orono campus that March to meet with planetarium staff only to find the door locked due to the pandemic shutdown. Bonacasa persisted and was able to add the show this season after the company launched “Sylvia” at the Cyrus Pavilion in January.
Bonacasa uses the limited floor space in the planetarium well and focuses the play on the dialogue and character interaction. Her work with the center’s director, Shawn Laatch, to use projections in the planetarium sets this show apart from productions on a proscenium stage and allows it to overcome its flaws.
It is not the first time a show has been performed at the Versant Power Astronomy Center’s planetarium. “Constellations” by Nick Payne was produced there in 2016 by the School of the Performing Arts, but the projections for “Silent Sky” are more complex and visually compelling.
Although the play has a cast of five, the actress playing Henrietta Leavitt must carry the show. Unfortunately, Jenny Hancock was not able to do that at Sunday’s performance because she consistently stumbled and bumbled over her lines.
That meant Hancock was focused on remembering the playwright’s fine dialogue and not on her character, a woman of fortitude, intellect and passion.
While Hancock has performed nicely in supporting roles in True North’s productions of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” in 2020 and Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” in 2019, she was not able Sunday to carry “Silent Sky.”
Peter Natali plays the only male character, Peter Shaw, who supervises the female computers and is a love interest for Leavitt. The romance doesn’t work out, but Natali, whose Shaw is a bit of a nervous Nellie in early scenes, charms the audience toward the end of the show. While Shaw may not have Henrietta’s passion for the stars, Natali gives him a sincerity with a capital S that is delightful.
The actresses playing Henrietta’s co-computers, Bunny Barclay as Williamina Fleming and Holly Schreiber as Annie Cannon, are simply wonderful. Barclay, sporting a Scottish accent, makes the most of the character’s dry wit and sarcasm, while Schreiber slowly reveals the humanity and suffragist beneath Cannon’s steely surface. Melissa Burkart is equally fine as Leavitt’s sister Margaret Leavitt, a wife and mother who supports but doesn’t really understand her sister’s passion for the stars.
While the technical demands of a show in a planetarium are far different than those of a production on stage, lighting designer Scout Hough, costume designer Mark Muir and sound designer Christopher Duff deserve kudos for creating the look, feel and sound of the early 20th century.
Despite Hancock’s flawed performance, which certainly could improve this week, “Silent Sky” is worth seeing. The story of these women’s contribution to science cannot be overstated and here it is told with reverence, joy and passion by True North Theatre.
Bonacasa has urged patrons to buy tickets online as seating at the planetarium is limited compared to its usual performance space in the Cyrus Pavilion. Sunday’s show was sold out.
“Silent Sky” will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday and at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Maynard Jordan Planetarium in the Versant Power Astronomy Center at the University of Maine. For tickets, visit astro.umaine.edu/silent-sky/.