Bigger is not always better.
The five-person cast of "Silent Sky" at Las Positas College so artfully become their characters that watching the drama feels like a riveting, intimate glimpse into the lives of those who lived a century ago and forever changed history.
"Silent Sky is a beautiful play about the woman who, while mapping the sky at Harvard, discovered that pulsing stars could be the key to understanding our place in the universe," said LPC Theater Coordinator and Director Titian Lish. "It's about the power of brave and persistent women."
Devoid of splashy musical numbers and shifting sets, Silent Sky allows attendees to focus on the compelling story, personalities and relationships. That the play is presented in-the-round (a first at the college) heightens the experience by drawing the audience close - nearly into the action.
Written by San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson, Silent Sky centers on three female "computers" who, around the turn of the 20th century, were tasked with recording information from photographic plates in order to measure and catalogue the brightness of stars. One, Henrietta Leavitt, made a groundbreaking discovery that allowed astronomers to measure the distance between Earth and faraway galaxies.
"Henrietta is fun, quirky and extremely dedicated to her work," said Amber Hill who plays her. "There are so many levels to this show. It was amazing to watch it develop through the actors, the set, the music, and finally the ever-important lights. It's almost euphoric how they all come together to create such beauty and importance."
Rounding out the cast are Kaitlin Bailey as Annie Jump Cannon, Hannah Ramirez as Williamina Fleming, Alynn Lima as Margaret Leavitt, and Niall Malone as Peter Shaw. Together, they bring to life themes as relevant today as ever: women's places in the work force, their responsibilities to family, and the challenges of romantic relationships.
It would be hard to imagine a group of women working today being referred to as a harem, but under Edward Pickering at Harvard in the 1890s, the highly-intelligent, feisty female colleagues were known as Pickering's Harem.
"Williamina brings sassiness and laughter to every situation she's in, and she is definitely brave, independent and incredibly smart," said Ramirez. "Through the eyes of Peter, she is 'Scottish stock, swift and angry.' He is rather scared of and intimidated by her, which she loves - making him feel uncomfortable every time he enters the room. But to the ladies, she's like the older sister everyone wants, and she would give them the jacket off her back."
It is, in fact, the rich dynamics between the characters that make Silent Sky an engrossing, uplifting, thoroughly enjoyable production. Filled with warmth, intelligence and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, Silent Sky is a must-see show.
"My favorite scene is when Henrietta has been working alone in the observatory and is overcome with frustration as she thinks she has reached a wall in her research," said Bailey. "She is crying at her desk when Annie comes in. Henrietta explains her dilemma, ranting about how it’s all a dead end. I love acting this scene because Annie isn’t sure of what Henrietta is discovering, but she recognizes the passion that Henrietta has - she knows the feeling well - and can tell that Henrietta’s work is not finished. Sometimes when we reach dead ends like that in our daily lives, we all need an Annie Cannon to come in and show us what we’re really made of. I get chills every time I say the words, 'You’re close. Keep working.'"
The Annie Cannon of LPC's theater department is Titian Lish, the incredibly gifted leader who is behind the college's top-quality, eclectic, relevant and affordable productions.
"Titian is like a mythical creature," said Lima. "A unicorn. I have never met anyone as dedicated, insightful and caring as she is. She is a joy to work with. She laughs with us, but also keeps a high level of professionalism. The expectations and faith she has in her team are great, and her creative eye is unlike any other. She makes things happen."
Much like Henrietta Leavitt herself. Though her work was originally published under Pickering's name, Leavitt was later recognized and considered for the 1926 Nobel Prize in Physics, but she had passed away in 1921 from ovarian cancer (prizes are not awarded posthumously). She did, however, have the Leavitt moon crater named in her honor, along with the asteroid 5383 Leavitt.
Upcoming performances take place at the Barbara F. Mertes Center for the Arts, located at 3000 Campus Hill Drive, Livermore. The show opens on December 2, with Friday and Saturday shows beginning at 8 p.m. on December 2-3, and 9-10; and Sunday shows beginning at 2 p.m. on December 4 and 11.
"We will have talk-back sessions after the Sunday shows in which audience members can ask astronomy professors questions about the women of Harvard and their discoveries," said Lish.
Additionally, audience members can, weather permitting, engage in stargazing after the Friday and Saturday shows, courtesy of the LPC Astronomy program.
Tickets are $15 for general admission, and $10 for students of any school, seniors and staff. Since seating is limited (about 80 seats per show) advance purchase is highly recommended. A $2 parking pass is required on Fridays.
"Silent Sky is an insightful journey not only about the woman who changed the course of astronomy but is also a look into common themes that most people face in their daily lives," said Lima. "It is a truly inspiring work."
For more information, visit www.laspositascollege.edu/performingarts or call ( 424-1120.