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Opening up the heavens

Silent Sky at Olympia Little Theatre

Left to right: Paige Doyle as Henrietta Leavitt, Erin Quinn Valcho as Williamina Fleming and Heather R. Christopher as Annie Jump Cannon. Photo courtesy Olympia Little Theatre

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Before there were machines called computers, there were women called computers, meaning, according to Peter Shaw (Drew Doyle) in the play Silent Sky at Olympia Little Theatre, "one who computes." Women scientists who were highly overqualified and severely underpaid, were hired to do dull, routine jobs the men scientists would not or could not do. One of these female "computers," Henrietta Leavitt (played to perfection by Paige Doyle), made a monumental astronomical discovery that her male employers were credited with until a century later. Her equally brilliant and dedicated fellow scientists Annie Jump Cannon (Heather R. Christopher) and Williamina Fleming (Erin Quinn Valcho) were deserving to equal credit for their invaluable contributions to science, but were likewise overlooked.

Silent Sky, written by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Deane Shellman, tells the story of these pioneering scientists. And while their jobs might have been tediously detail-oriented, the play is anything but tedious. It is romantic, poetic, tender in places and highly dramatic.

It opens with a beautifully poetic scene of Henrietta standing by a porch rail on her family's Wisconsin ranch in 1900 gazing at the night sky and talking about the wonders of the heavens -- wonders and mysteries because at the time we did not have a clue as to where we were in the cosmos. How far away were those stars? Were there other galaxies beyond our milky way? The mystery and poetry of this opening scene is enhanced by a projected star field in the background and mood lighting by Olivia Burlingame (scenic designer, Jeannie Beirne).

The drama arises from the relationships between Henrietta and her sister, Margaret (Tessa Fairfortune), between Henrietta and her co-workers Annie and Williamina, and between Henrietta and Peter, the only man in the show.

Each of the three "computers" has a distinct personality, skillfully acted out by Christopher, Doyle and Valcho. Henrietta is driven and passionate, she loves her family but is neglectful of them because of her unrelenting drive to do her astronomical explorations. Annie is uptight and all business at first, seemingly mean-spirited, but there is a more joyful woman underneath with a passion beyond astronomy also for suffrage. Christopher makes this complex character shine. Williamina is the playful and kind peacemaker, and Valcho does a great job with her Scottish accent, which is clearly recognizable but not overdone.

Fairfortune handles the role of Margaret with grace, allowing the complexities that are beneath the surface of her relationship with Henrietta play out without becoming overblown even when under strain. Doyle plays the restrained and stuffy (at first) Peter with a zest at times bursting from the seams.    

It is wonderful to see these accomplished actors playing the parts of women scientists who have been too long overlooked. As we all know, there is an anti-science strain in our society that denies the truth of science for political expediency. For this reason, we need plays like this more than ever. But Silent Sky is more than science and vindication for women who have been historically demeaned. It is drama and poetry and family conflict. There is even a love story at the heart of it.

The director, cast and crew has done an exemplary job of bringing to Olympia a play you owe it to yourself to see.

Silent Sky, 7:25 p.m., Thursday-Saturday; 1:55 p.m., Sunday, through Sept. 16, Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia, tickets $11-$15, $2 student discount, available at Yenney Music, 2703 Capital Mall Dr., Olympia, 360.786.9484,

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