In “Silent Sky,” Lauren Gunderson retrieves from intellectual history’s dustbin the figure of Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921), an amateur astronomer who transcended her post as a Harvard “computer” (data entry clerk) to make significant observations on the universe and influence the work of Edwin Hubble, among others. Interest in an unsung scientific pioneer is tempered by chagrin over the downright blah dramaturgy showcasing her. “Silent Sky” is considerably more superficial than a Hollywood biopic in which Paul Muni or Greer Garson nobly battles ignorance for humanity’s advancement.
Garson might have been the role model. Gunderson and thesp Monette Magrath portray Leavitt as a spunky lass undeterred by deafness and prejudice, though the hearing disability suggested in the title plays no evident part in her struggle. And male antagonists like her minister father and Harvard boss, for whom old MGM would have supplied any number of sinister character actors, are neither seen nor felt on the South Coast Rep stage. Our gal just runs roughshod over everyone.
Gunderson does devote ample time to Leavitt’s female support group, including Amelia White as a warm confidante in the Thelma Ritter vein, touched with a Scottish burr; and Colette Kilroy as a starchy suffragette who slowly comes to recognize Leavitt’s superior qualities (Agnes Moorehead would be perfect).
But Erin Cottrell struggles to make sense of the Teresa Wright role of sister Margaret, who alternates between devotion and resentment in accordance with momentary plot needs. It doesn’t help that helmer Anne Justine D’Zmura has placed her piano and bench on a turntable, whose point (other than the obvious cosmic allusion) we await in vain as she keeps playing and rotating, like a 19th century lounge act.
And even Walter Pidgeon, with his underrated blend of integrity and wit, would have no more success than Nick Toren at navigating the role of Peter Shaw, Henrietta’s bumbling supervisor, admiring colleague, ardent lover or bigoted rival depending on where we are in the text. Shaw is persuasive in none of the incarnations.
Gunderson does take pains to spell out, for us uninitiated, the era’s limited cosmic knowledge and how Leavitt’s insights changed everything. Remember Mme. Curie discovering radium? “Oh my God, the blinking is music! … The pulsing isn’t random. There is a pattern! The brightest stars take the longest to blink. So if this is the dimmest the star gets, and this is the brightest, then …” Given the drama’s feebleness, one becomes suspicious of having been led here by a bill of goods, solely for the astronomy chalk talk.
Leavitt remains spunky to the end — at times the sing-song dialogue suggests musical number lead-ins — until an unnamed ailment sets in; around the time of “Love Story,” Mad magazine dubbed it “old movie disease.” Our heroine gets all saintly and infirm as her peers gather to honor her (“You asked God a question and he answered. That’s the meaning of meaning for most of us”). And that’s all she wrote.