Most people have probably never heard of Henrietta Swan Leavitt.
She was an American astronomer born in 1868, who only lived to the age of 53, but made some remarkable discoveries pertaining to the stars during her lifetime. Her life story and work is depicted in the Chemainus Theatre Festival production of Silent Sky, running from Friday, Oct. 13 through Saturday, Nov. 4.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson illuminates Leavitt’s story, bringing this fascinating historical figure to light for the way she revolutionized our understanding of the vast universe.
“When I saw it in Seattle, I was quite stunned how much of an impact it had on me as an artist and a human being,” said CTF artistic director Mark DuMez, who’s also the director of this performance.
He added the play “examines love and space and time and how we perceive each other.”
DuMez indicated Gunderson focuses on the science and humanity “and how these things intersect and how they have an impact on our lives.”
Leavitt, portrayed by Emma Slipp who has appeared previously at the CTF in Hilda’s Yard and Singin’ In The Rain, was a graduate of Radcliffe College and went to work at the Harvard College Observatory in 1893 as a “computer”, assigned the task of examining photographic plates to measure and catalogue the brightness of the stars.
Leavitt’s work first allowed astronomers to measure the distance between the Earth and far-off galaxies. She discovered more than 2,400 variable stars during her career, about half the known total during that era.
Leavitt died from cancer. Following her death, Edwin Hubble of Hubble telescope fame, utilized some of her work to determine that the universe was expanding.
Through the theatre, Leavitt’s work is given meaning and her great discoveries a second chance to be shared and appreciated.
This play asks a lot of questions and offers some surprising answers, DuMez indicated.
“In doing so, it invites us to consider great mysteries of light in darkness, love in life and asks ‘How big is our sky today?’
The cast also includes: Jay Clift as Peter Shaw, Andrea Cross as Margaret Leavitt, Luisa Jojic as Annie Cannon and CTF veteran Anita Wittenberg as Williamina Fleming.
“The design work is really quite beautiful and evocative and I’m finding the performers a joy to work with,” said DuMez.
Clift is thrilled to be back in Chemainus after working in two other productions here, The Mousetrap and Harvey.
“It’s a very challenging role,” said Clift of his portrayal of Shaw. “It’s left to my own devices.
“It’s devised out of a composite of a bunch of different people. There’s no actual history on this guy. The other characters are based on reality.”
Clift concedes he didn’t know much about the Leavitt story or the entire concept heading into it.
“It’s more challenging that way, but more exciting,” he offered.
“There’s not this idea what it’s supposed to be like.
“What I find great about this, we get to go back in time and apply this modern perspective to what it was like.”
Silent Sky is a fitting production as the CTF winds down its highly-successful 25th anniversary season that included a record-breaking summer run for ticket sales with Rock Legends.
“Now as we gaze upward at the stars with Henrietta Leavitt in Silent Sky, we do so with great anticipation, dreaming all that is to come,” noted managing director Randal Huber.