‘Silent Sky’: An eloquent ode to feminine freedom
At a time when women were not allowed to vote or hold executive jobs, Henrietta Swan Leavitt was literally aiming for the stars. A summa cum laude graduate of Radcliffe University, she had a singular passion for astronomy that made her defy early 20th-century convention, such as the inevitable role of wife-mother.
And though she was a pastor’s daughter, she preferred to examine the heavens rather than sing praises about it. By the time Leavitt died in 1921, she had discovered 2,100 variables of stars—and even paved the way for breakthroughs by her male colleagues, such as calculating the vast distances between these stellar bodies, and proving the existence of other galaxies beyond the Milky Way.
Repertory Philippines’ production of Lauren Gunderson’s play “Silent Sky,” which retells Leavitt’s fight for intellectual and civil freedom, is a quiet but eloquent homage that gives the late astronomer and her contemporaries the platform to voice their struggles and successes in a way they couldn’t have done so back then, in real life.
The play’s five-member ensemble only has one male character, Peter Shaw (Topper Fabregas), Leavitt’s colleague who is the mirror of the predominantly male society she alternately competes with and yearns recognition from.
The other famous names of that era, or even her authoritarian superiors, are only alluded to, like hovering ghosts who dictate things but never quite materialize. And perhaps that is just as well, because, aside from Cathy Azanza-Dy’s towering performance as the main protagonist, the other three female characters lay out an honest, compelling, and yet oddly joyful picture of what women went through in that period.
“Silent Sky,” directed by Joy Virata, has none of the antipatriarchal rage present in many feminist productions. The moments of frustration and heartbreak can be touching, but what breaks through is the women’s inner wellspring of hope and optimism.
Azanza-Dy’s Leavitt is outspoken, brash, confrontational—a charming and passionate ball of energy who sweeps Shaw off his feet or sends him scurrying off in dismay. The polarities they embody are not just the contrarian male and female dynamics of that time, but the dramatic changes in science that Harvard’s best are hard-pressed to cope with.
While Shaw is overwhelmed at the implications of Einstein’s then-new theory of relativity, Leavitt embraces them. This imbalance unfortunately prevents Fabregas, who is a good actor in his own right, from holding his own against Azanza-Dy’s Leavitt. Shaw’s mousiness, both as a person and as a scientist, fades under her fiery disposition, making their botched romance contrived.
Fortunately, the same cannot be said of the other characters who are at the sidelines but blaze like little stars once the script brings them into orbit. Sheila Francisco’s domineering Annie is one of the first females to march for the right to suffrage. Naths Everett’s Will is the plucky spirit who encourages Leavitt’s expansion of duties. And while both of them are spinsters, neither bemoans nor conducts their life in perpetual melancholy at the fact.
But Leavitt’s true counterpoint is her sister, Margie, the goody-goody, so-called exemplary daughter who followed convention and remained faithful to home and hearth. While Dy’s Leavitt is a firebrand who never loses steam (even when she is dying), Caisa Borromeo’s understated performance makes her character evolve from a frustrated, baffled homemaker to a mature woman who has accepted society’s limitations and blessings—and, more importantly, her sister’s distance from it all, and yet continues to love her.
Leavitt and company stayed a lifetime inside a dull library stacked with books, notebooks and plates. At the outset, none of them are even allowed to peer through a telescope.
Joey Mendoza’s production design and John Batalla’s lights combine to let us see the heavens through their eyes. The stars that glitter on stage reflect both the discoveries that Leavitt makes, and the boundless human imagination that continues to see and explore no matter the earthly constraints.
Buffs of astronomy, physics and science history can take delight in some of the technical discourses the characters throw the audience’s way. But even the greenest newbie can dive into and enjoy the intellectual, emotional and civil enlightenment that Leavitt’s journey leads them to. —CONTRIBUTED
Repertory Philippines’ “Silent Sky” runs until March 25 at Onstage, Greenbelt 1, Makati City. Visit www.ticketworld.com.ph
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