“Silent Sky” – Arizona Theatre Company

Theater Review – November 17, 2019


Arizona Theatre Company, Center Stage, Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix, AZ

Lauren Gunderson has quietly crafted a major theatrical career and for two years has been the most produced American playwright but even without one play on Broadway.  The Arizona Theatre Company has convinced Gunderson to premiere two new plays and a musical here.  To start off her local connection, the company is mounting a rich staging of Gunderson’s 2013 play “Silent Sky” which takes a touching look at late 19th century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt.  She discovered the “period–luminosity relationship for Cepheid variables” reveals a star’s brightness tells its distance from earth.

It sounds like dull history but Henrietta was a dynamo interested not only in the skies but also that women could investigate complex issues just like men.  Workaholic Henrietta yearns for acceptance into scientific circles where her hard work will be respected.  Balancing her scientific efforts with her family obligations keeps the play vibrant and real.  Not only is Henrietta interesting but director Casey Stangl’s superb production keeps her discoveries fascinating.

Henrietta is convinced that her scientific dedication will restrict her life so she is willing to forgo love and marriage.  She flirts with co-worker Peter Shaw but her father’s failing health eliminates her one chance for affection.  And her failing health further stifles her scientific brilliance.

Under Stangl’s sure hand Henrietta’s life evolves with stalwart determination.  The director’s concept is brilliantly aided by five superb performers who bring life to Henrietta, her two co-workers, her dotting sister, and the man she fails to win.  Especially forceful and vigorous is Veronika Duerr who turns Henrietta into a memorable yet tragic figure.  The range of emotions required of Duerr is huge as she crafts Henrietta and Duerr transitions from an interested scientist to a dying woman who fails to see how she has revolutionized women’s place in science.

Victoria Grace is touching as Henrietta’s sister, Margaret, while Inger Tudor and Amelia White play Henrietta’s co-workers very differently but who both provide unending support and adoration.  Nardeep Khurmi essays Peter Shaw, Henrietta’s only love with sly irreverence as he teases but always respects the scientist.  A marvelous set and stunning projections carry the play’s theme of space exploration with clever genius.

“Silent Sky” is an exemplary play that introduces a major but largely unknown astronomical figure with artful luminosity in Lauren Gunderson’s witty and intriguing play.  “Silent Sky” continues through December 1.  For tickets, call the Arizona Theatre Company box office at 602-256-6995 or order tickets online at www.arizonatheatre.org.

Grade: A