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Rep’s Silent Sky:Big on passion, a lot of science, and a little love story

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CATHY AZANSA-DY is the lead in Silent Sky.

By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman, Reporter

Theater Review
Silent Sky
Presented by Repertory Philippines
Onstage, Greenbelt 1,
Ayala Center, Makati City
On view until March 25

THE WORDS “cerebral” and “cute” do not normally go together, but in Repertory Philippines’ latest production Silent Sky, they do.

Science nerds will geek out with the play’s discussions of, and references to, the cosmos, the Theory of Relativity, astronomy, and the vastness of galaxies where we are but specks of dust. But despite the many conversations and debates about science, the script by playwright Lauren Gunderson does not let its audience drown in intellectual talk. Silent Sky is not a story on how theories lead to other discoveries, but what it is about is one’s passion, grit, perseverance, and big dreams that can lead to exploration and breakthroughs.

Silent Sky is based on the life of the early 20th century astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt whose pioneering work lead to the discovery of galaxies other than our own. Not much is written about her (and other female scientists) in the history books, so the play is a tribute to her contribution to mankind. It is also an encouragement to all the women who must thrive in a patriarchal world.

Cathy Azansa plays Ms. Leavitt, a “computer” in Harvard College Observatory in the 1900s, who studies the sky and came up with a method to measure distance in space. Despite the negative attitudes toward women at that era — from disgust over women in pants and their fight for suffrage, and expectations that they must be subservient to men — she pursues her dreams and triumphs. Ms. Leavitt’s work paved the way for “better known” male astronomers like Edwin Hubble, who is said to have discovered the cosmos and after whom the Hubble Telescope was named.

Ms. Leavitt is joined by two other female scientists, Annie Cannon (played by Sheila Francisco) and Williamina Fleming (played by Naths Everett, who has to maintain a Scottish accent throughout the play). Despite being forbidden from using the Observatory’s telescope — just because they are women — together the trio mapped the stars, computing and recording their blinks, temperatures, and colors in their notebooks.

At an open rehearsal for the media, the play’s director Joy Virata told BusinessWorld she wanted the audience to learn about astronomy, “but not in a lecture-y way.” But more than that, she wants the theatergoer to see the power of a woman who takes her own chance when people do not give it to her.

The play spans 30 years, aided by the music (by sound designer Jethro Joaquin) and lighting (by lighting designer John Batalla) to signal the passage of time. The stage is almost bare, save from the two tables where the women do their astronomical research, but it does not matter — the story requires simplicity, and the excellent manipulation of sound and light helps the narrative shift between “time” and “space.” Apropos of the theme of the play, there is a huge realistic rendition of a sky full of stars — made from a painted backdrop, lighting, and projection — which twinkles and changes throughout the play.

Silent Sky is, as said earlier, not just cerebral but also has “cute” elements in it, notably a love story between Ms. Leavitt and her colleague, Peter Shaw (Topper Fabregas), which goes through the stages of infatuation to finally the admission of one’s admiration, and, is it love? Peter says he knows it is love because his heart is beating like a train. The love story is only imagined though — unlike the other characters in the play, Peter Shaw was not based on a real person, but was a tool for Ms. Gunderson to fully harmonize her themes of science and religion, history, family, and love.

(Spoiler alert!)

Unfortunately, the relationship does not pan out — thanks to work and family problems, the timelines of their lives do not coincide and, like Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, they are like “ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing.” Why do some career-oriented women, then and now, always have to choose between love and work?

Despite the sad love story, Silent Sky is, overall, a happy and encouraging story on how a woman forges her own path through a society bent on keeping her inside the lines. Listen carefully to the characters’ lines and thoughts about legacy, being content in the fact that we should not always know everything, and, finally, finding our place in the vast universe.

For show schedules and tickets (P1,200 and P1,500), visit TicketWorld at www.ticketworld.com.ph.