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Theatre Review: "Silent Sky" at Know Theatre

Have you ever heard of American astronomer Edwin Hubble (hint: The Hubble Space Telescope.)

Have you ever heard of Henrietta Leavitt? Of course you haven’t. But there’s a strong case to be made that there wouldn’t have been Hubble (who formed the basis of the Big Bang Theory) without Leavitt. 

Prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson is drawn to little-known history and unsung women in history. Sometimes she misses – like The Revolutionists at Playhouse in the Park earlier this season – and sometimes she delivers a solid hit, like Silent Sky, getting its Cincinnati premiere at Know Theatre through May 14.

Silent Sky is a charmer of a biographical fantasy and Know’s production is a crowd pleaser, featuring a handful of Cincinnati’s best actresses – radiant Maggie Lou Rader plays Leavitt, Miranda McGee is her loving sister, and Regina Pugh and Annie Fitzpatrick are her groundbreaking colleagues at the Harvard Observatory, beginning in 1893. 

Director Tamara Winters helps them bring out every joy and frustration and sorrow and hope and Andrew Hungerford’s scenic and lighting design creates a starry world of possibilities on Know’s intimate playing space.

The play’s foundation is real. Anonymous, accomplished women (Leavitt was a Radcliffe grad) were employed by Harvard College Observatory to measure and catalog the brightness of stars from photographic plates. 

Actually see the stars? No, no. That was for the men.

Leavitt was going deaf, she was torn from her passionate study of the sky too often by family obligations, and her own health problems during her career. Nevertheless, while she sat at a desk and notated, Leavitt managed to do something remarkable: she saw the infinite sky in the changing brightness of tiny dots (which somehow those brilliant men didn’t see) and created the standard that made it possible to compute the distances to stars in other galaxies. Hubble and others took her work and proved that beyond the Milky Way was an entire cosmos.

Gunderson gives Henrietta a milksop gentleman caller, nicely played by Justin McCombs. (Yes, the majority of the cast are members of Cincinnati Shakespeare.) 

Most importantly, Gunderson makes sense for an astronomically uneducated audience of exactly what Leavitt did, puts her in the context of her times (which included suffragettes and WWI) and looks clearly if delicately at the pressures women faced in pursuit of achieving a dream.

Know’s production hits every note. The story Gunderson spins is engaging, engrossing, very often funny. There’s romance and heartache and especially loving friendship. 

Lead actresses Fitzpatrick and Pugh take supporting roles here: Fitzpatrick is all prickly exterior covering a soft heart; Pugh (who wrapped Annapurna at Ensemble on April 10, talk about a quick turn-around) plays the stern Scot with a wicked sense of humor and lots of laugh lines.

McGee, who has entirely too few lead roles, is strong as always here, capturing all the mixed emotions of a sister to a preoccupied visionary.

Rader does Leavitt proud, completing the dramatic portrait Gunderson imagines, making us care deeply for Henrietta.

Of course in Leavitt’s story there are clear parallels with women’s challenges today, many the same as a century ago. At least today we can look at the stars, too.

Silent Sky, through May 14. Know Theatre. Know Theatre, 1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine. 8 p.m. Thursday- Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $20. 513-300-5669 and knowtheatre.com. Note: Wednesday "Welcome Experiment" performances will be made available online the Sunday before each performance. We reserve half of the available seating on Wednesdays for walk-up at show time.

Photo by Daniel Winters (provided)