Theater Review: 'Silent Sky'

Ben Miles

Lauren Gunderson’s star-focused play, “Silent Sky,” premiered in 2011 at Orange County’s crown jewel repertory company, South Coast Rep. It was part of SCR’s annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, which became the selected entry and anchor show  of that season.

Now “Silent Sky,” the story of the nearly forgotten turn-of-the-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, graces the stage of Long Beach’s International City Theatre. Under the sturdy direction of Todd Nielsen, “Silent Sky” is a stirring docudrama that traces the achievement of Henrietta Leavitt from her reluctant departure from her family home in Wisconsin to her accomplishments at Harvard Observatory, a century ago.

Particularly difficult for Henrietta is the separation from her beloved sister, Margaret (a winningly vivacious Erin Anne Williams), compounding the departure is the fact that Henrietta and Margaret are the daughters of a well-respected pastor and that Henrietta is deaf and is able to hear only with the aid of a primitive head device (a condition that seems under emphasized and in need of further explanation).

Nevertheless, Henrietta does journey to Harvard where she is tasked with being a “computer” of stars; that is, it’s her assignment to do mathematical calculations of the heavens in a era when most astronomers thought that our Milky Way Galaxy constituted the entire universe.

Of course, Henrietta is not alone in her spacey duties. She quickly becomes aware through her fellow female “computers” (an amusing Jennifer Parsons as Williamina Fleming and Leslie Stevens as the sharp as cheddar Annie Cannon) that she is required to do the woman’s work of data gathering while leaving the high-minded astrological theorizing to the men.

And speaking of men there’s one in the cast. The character is Peter Shaw, the immediate supervisor to the calculating ladies (a sturdy performance of this straight-laced character is rendered by Eric Wentz). This, unpredictably, turns into a love story between Peter and Henrietta.

With an imaginative scenic design by Christopher Scott Murillo, an exquisite lighting motif by Donna Ruzika, astute costuming by Kim DeShazo and sound engineering by Jeff Polunas, we, in a mere two hours ( including an intermission) are made aware of the invaluable contributions that these ladies, the human computers of a century ago, made to space science. ICT’s production of “Silent Sky” is as entertaining as it is pedagogical, making learning into an artistic event.


Written by Lauren Gunderson

Directed by Todd Nielsen

Starring Jennifer Cannon, Jennifer Parsons, Leslie Stevens, Eric Wentz, Erin Anne Williams

Produced by Caryn Desai


Thursday at 8 p.m.: Sept. 7

Fridays at 8 p.m.: Sept. 1, 8

Saturdays at 8 p.m.: Sept. 2, 9

Sundays at 2 p.m.: Sept. 3, 10


International City Theatre

LB Performing Arts Center
30 East Seaside Way Long Beach


(562) 436-4610 or


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