Jennifer Cannon lights up the International City Theatre stage as groundbreaking astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, a hidden figure at long last given the recognition she deserves in Lauren Gunderson’s captivating Silent Sky.

 We first meet “Henry” circa 1900 as the Radcliffe grad leaves behind her beloved father, old-fashioned sister Margaret (Erin Anne Williams), and their Wisconsin home to join Harvard University Observatory head Edward Charles Pickering’s all-female team of “computers,” whose only responsibility is to name and catalog stars seen through the university observatory telescope and captured on glass.

Tedious as Henrietta’s work would seem to be, this is hardly the adjective to describe Gunderson’s enthralling play, whose early scenes are deliciously spiced by the squabbling of Henrietta’s partners in star-gazing, the starchy, imperious Annie Cannon (Leslie Stevens) and the feisty, quick-witted Scot Williamina Fleming (Jennifer Parsons).

 Meanwhile, romantic potential arrives in the person of Peter Shaw (Eric Wentz), Pickering’s brilliant assistant and just the right match for the equally brainy Henrietta if only he can keep from putting his foot in his mouth, something that seems to happen whenever they meet.

In tried-and-true romcom tradition, bickering proves mere foreplay to an attraction neither astronomer can deny as Henrietta devises the first-ever means of calculating a star’s magnitude, and even more significantly, a method of determining the distance of stars as far as ten million light years away.

 Under Todd Niesen’s effervescent direction, Silent Sky draws us into the lives of its eclectic band of characters, in particular the plucky Henrietta, given equal parts gumption, ambition, and smarts by the radiant Cannon (Lenny in ICT’s recent Crimes Of The Heart) in quite possibly her finest performance to date.

 The equally fabulous Parsons and Stevens trade zinger after zinger to audience glee, and Williams is terrific too as an old-fashioned gal who learns to appreciate her decidedly untraditional sister.

As for Henrietta’s adversary turned admirer, what young astronomer of sound mind wouldn’t fall for someone as adorably awkward and ultimately winning as Wentz’s deliciously dour, utterly smitten Peter Shaw.

Scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo’s spare but splendid set combines with Donna Ruzika’s vibrant lighting and Lily Bartenstein’s literally stellar projections to take us from Wisconsin to Harvard to the star-spangled skies above.

 Add to this sound designer Jeff Polunas’s mix of mood-setting music and effects, resident costume designer Kim DeShazo’s pitch-perfect period creations (acquiring a slimmer silhouette as we move from the early 1900s to the WWI years), resident property designers Patty and Gordon Briles’ finely detailed glass plates and other assorted astronomical paraphernalia, and resident hair and wig designer Anthony Gagliardi’s era-appropriate women’s dos (only Cannon sports her own tresses) and you’ve got yet another top-drawer ICT production design.

Silent Sky is produced by International City Theatre artistic director caryn desai. Victoria A. Gathe is production stage manager and Sarah Nearhoff is assistant stage manager. Casting is by resident casting director Michael Donovan, CSA. Richie Ferris is casting associate.

With its just-right blend of human relationships, science, and romance, Silent Sky entertains as often as it illuminates. From the heavens above, Henrietta Leavitt would be proud.

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International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
August 25, 2017
Photos: Tracey Roman



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