Starry, starry night: Gunderson lights up Sky at TheatreWorks

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The cast of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky at TheatreWorks includes, from left, Matt Citron as Peter, Jennifer Le Blanc as Margaret, Elena Wright as Henrietta, Sarah Dacey Charles as Annie and Lynne Soffer as Williamina. Below: Citron and Wright find love through astronomy. Photos by Mark Kitaoka

Mind-expanding science and heart-expanding characters are the stock in trade of San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson, whose not-so-stealthy takeover of the Bay Area theater scene couldn’t be more welcome. Her staggering smarts are matched by her delectable sense of humor, so any new work with her name attached to it is reason to pay some serious attention.

Gunderson’s latest Bay Area production comes from TheatreWorks: Silent Sky, a bright, poignant drama about, among other things, the persistence and power of dreams, the transforming nature of scientific exploration and discovery and the triumph of women working under the weight of a sexist society. The play is warm, funny and incisive. It’s deftly directed by Meredith McDonough and features an entirely likable cast of five working on a lovely observatory set by Annie Smart that gives them plenty of room for stargazing.

Elena Wright, sharp and funny, is Henrietta Leavitt, a real-life pioneer of American astronomy and someone I didn’t know at all before this play. Her discoveries while working a menial job at the Harvard College Observatory went on to influence Edwin Hubble (of Hubble Space Telescope fame) and inspired consideration (albeit posthumously) for the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on “period luminosity relationship,” which had to do with the rhythmic (like music) pulsing of stars known as Cepheids (one can learn so much from the theater).

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If the real Leavitt was as disarming and lively as Wright and Gunderson make her out to be, she must have been fun (and occasionally frustrating) to be around. Though stifled in her own scientific explorations by the men who called the well-educated, hard-working women in her department a “harem,” she didn’t pout or rail. She just did her job (brilliantly) and pursued her own course of exploration on her own time. In Gunderson’s version, it helps considerably that she has the support of two of her co-workers, Annie (Sarah Dacey Charles) and Scottish pistol Williamina (Lynne Soffer), as well as a doting sister back home in Wisconsin (Jennifer Le Blanc as Margaret) who took the more traditional wife-mother route rather than focusing on her music composition.

There’s also a sweet love story afoot involving one of Henrietta’s other co-workers, a man and automatically her professional superior. Peter Shaw (Matt Citron) is also a nerdy astronomer, but while Henrietta has an open, inquisitive mind and a willingness to accept the unknown, Peter is much more rigid in his views (about the universe and about women), so their relationship is far from smooth, and it helps us know Henrietta a little bit better as she navigates a realm – romance – she knows so little about.

Though Silent Sky paints a vibrant portrait of Henrietta Leavitt, with a abundance of good humor and some terrific laugh lines, I have to say I lost track of her in Act 2, which becomes more of a surface skim than a deep dive. Time goes by quickly, relationships get a little fuzzy and tragedy strikes. My impression of what fate befell Leavitt was such that I wanted to know more about her, so I was surprised to find out that what I thought was happening to her in her early 30s actually happened in her early 50s. Somehow I really lost track of the passage of time (which, as we’re reminded, is relative).

As beautiful as Gunderson’s Sky is – and it is, both in content and in form, with a lilting underscore by Jenny Giering – I found myself wanting more. More science, more biography, more time with Henrietta Leavitt. But that’s also the triumph of the play. Here’s a significant figure in American astronomy about whom I’d never heard a word, and I’m feeling greedy about her. I want more. So, perhaps we can fantasize about Silent Sky the Discovery Channel miniseries penned by Gunderson in her spare time when she’s not writing a new play for every theater in the Bay Area?

[bonus interview]
I talked to Lauren Gunderson and Jennifer Le Blanc about their working relationship for a story in American Theatre magazine. Read the feature here.

Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky continues through Feb. 9 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$73.Call 650-463-1960 or visit

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