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Silent Sky ~ Ford’s Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 2, 2020

Mention the name Lauren Gunderson, and you’ll probably get an enthusiastic nod of recognition.  As the most produced playwright in America, she has been writing plays about real women whose achievements have been subordinated to those of men.  Think of the movie Hidden Figures as a recent example of women whose monumental accomplishments were overlooked, and overshadowed, by the men at NASA.

Laura C. Harris (center) with Emily Kester, Jonathan David Martin, Holly Twyford and Nora Achrati Photo by Scott Suchman.

Gunderson’s play Emilie – La Marquise du Chatelet, reviewed here two years ago and a recent world premiere of her play, Peter Pan and Wendy, here in DC, have more than endeared her to local audiences.

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In Silent Sky, Gunderson enlightens us with the ground-breaking theories of a young, female astronomer who, against all odds, made radical discoveries that shook every astronomer’s concept of the vastness of space.  Henrietta Swan Leavitt had a degree from Harvard in astronomy.  Yet when she was hired to work in this renowned observatory in the early 1900’s, she was not permitted to observe the galaxy through the Great Refractor telescope.  No woman could.  Instead, she, along with two other female computers called “Pickering’s harem” by the male department head, were tasked with looking at photographic plates to ascertain the position and classification of stars.  (Until the mid-20th century the word “computer” referred to a person who carried out calculations – long before computing machines were invented.)

Holly Twyford, Laura C. Harris and Nora Achrati – Photo by Scott Suchman.

Squirreled away in a tiny office and separated from the male astronomers, Leavitt alone achieved a system of mapping the Milky Way by relating the blinking of the stars to music and recognizing that pulsing stars have a pattern.  This at a time when Einstein’s theory of relativity had just been published.

Gunderson focuses on Henrietta and her feisty co-workers, Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, toiling away in obscurity.  It was a time when young women rarely pursued a career and still did not yet have the right to vote.  Her only sibling, Margaret, chooses marriage, children, and a life in the church, despairing as Henrietta delves deeper into her work far from home and to the exclusion of her family.

Laura C. Harris – Photo by Scott Suchman.

Wonderful nighttime skies filled with starlight and a bespoke period stage set, complete the picture and add to the powerful story of the women’s mutual support and the parallel thread of Henrietta’s burgeoning romance with Peter Shaw, who falls in love with her passion and intellect, and provides a lively background to this brilliant astronomer’s extraordinary life and eventual worldwide recognition.

Starring Laura C. Harris as Henrietta Leavitt; Nora Achrati as Annie Cannon; Holly Twyford as Williamina Fleming; Emily Kester as Margaret Leavitt; and Jonathan David Martin as Peter Shaw.

Jonathan David Martin and Laura C. Harris – Photo by Scott Suchman.

Directed by Seema Sueko with Scenic Design by Milagros Ponce de León; Costume Design by Ivania Stack; Lighting Design by Rui Rita; Sound Design and Original Music by André J. Pluess; Choreographed by Karma Camp; Hair and Makeup by Anne Nesmith.

Wonderful performances by a tight-knit cast.  Don’t miss it!

Through February 23rd at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information visit or call the box office at 202.347.4833.

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