Presented by Repertory Philippines
Directed by Joy Virata
March 16, 17, 23, 24 at 8 p.m.;
March 17, 18, 24, 25 at 3:30 p.m.
Onstage Theatre, Greenbelt 1,
Paseo de Roxas St., Makati City
By Sujata S. Mukhi
PASSION AND CONSISTENCY. These are the two traits that director Joy Virata shares with the lead character of Repertory Philippines’ current offering, Silent Sky. Through her decades-long involvement with Repertory Philippines, Ms. Virata is indefatigable as an actor, relentless in her insistence on quality productions as Artistic Director, and personally committed to enhancing the theatrical experience of the youth by developing them as audience, production, or performer as VP for the Repertory Theater for Young Audiences.
Her years in theater have not dimmed her instinct nor raw enthusiasm for theatrical gems. Ms. Virata had gotten hold of the Silent Sky script some time last year and felt compelled to stage it, in the same way that playwright Lauren Gunderson needed to shine a light on Henrietta Leavitt, a real hidden figure from the male-dominated field of Astronomy in the early 1900s. All very apt for National Women’s Month.
And what an uplifting production this is. Ms. Virata has gathered a stellar ensemble that beam with varying luminosities to give way to Cathy Azanza-Dy’s hearty interpretation of the title role. She is, after all, playing a woman whose rigorous work became the basis for later astronomers to measure, well, only the vastness of the universe.
Henrietta wants nothing more than just to have it all. Defying convention and expectation, and, most difficult of all, defying her conservative sister Margaret (Caisa Borromeo) who bristles at women who wear pants and who fight for the right to vote, Henrietta sets her sights to the heavens. The closest to that on earth is a job under renowned Astronomer Edward Charles Pickering at the Harvard Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
With neither beau nor husband on her arm, Henrietta is nevertheless armed with a Bachelor’s degree with units in Astronomy from Radcliffe, summa cum laude if you please. Upon arrival at the Observatory, Henrietta is at first affronted when told by her colleague Peter Shaw (Topper Fabregas) that her work is relegated to being a human “computer” to measure and catalog the stars. “To do your math?” she incredulously asks. Together with other women who comprise “Pickering’s harem,” she is told that she would look at the observatory’s photographic plates and record what she would see. But being a woman, she would never be allowed to operate the Great Refractor, one of the world’s biggest telescopes at that time. “What about working on our own ideas?” she impatiently asks the head of the department, Annie Cannon (Shiela Francisco). Annie sternly responds, “If doing what has never been done before sounds unimportant to you, uninspired, I’d leave before you are asked to… we collect, report, and maintain the largest stellar archive in the world. And we resist the temptation to analyze it.”
Of course we know that line portends the exact opposite. In her years at the Observatory, Henrietta, through her judicious study of the photographic plates, eventually makes a startling discovery about certain types of stars called Cepheids. In a rousing scene that makes a case for integrating art and science in all schools, Henrietta gets her eureka moment by drawing parallels between her sister’s musical composition and the pulsation of the stars. Her discovery would eventually form the basis for literally measuring the breadth of the universe, thought at that time to be limited by the size of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Henrietta Leavitt rewrote how stars had till then been written about.
I will refrain from further scientific explanations beyond my own understanding, but suffice it to say that Ms. Gunderson so very deftly weaves the technical, the witty, and the intimate in the characters’ conversations. We are blown away rather than baffled. And there’s an inevitable, but wholly organic drawing out of metaphors between connecting starry dots and connecting the dots of events in these characters’ lives.
Henrietta’s success is bolstered by a sisterhood bound by blood with Margaret, and by ideals with colleagues Willamina (Naths Everett) and Annie. Both Willamina Fleming and Annie Cannon themselves were respected real-life astronomers, who with Pickering designed a stellar classification system. “You created a standard!” Henrietta says breathlessly, a fangirl in the presence of scientific geniuses whose names are never mentioned in her sacred textbooks.
Ms. Everett and Ms. Francisco are terrific as Henrietta’s cohorts, in cahoots to help her fulfill her ambition. Ms. Everett gets the best lines, said under the breath or with a naughty, naughty twinkle. She is full of surprises in whatever role she takes. Ms Francisco is solid, and consistent.
As Henrietta becomes more immersed in her starfield in Harvard, her sister Margaret back home in Wisconsin grows into her life of wifehood, motherhood, and caregiver to their aging father. The staging of their letter exchanges, and the cadences of their delivery are completely engaging. What starts off as sisterly banter ends up in cold silence as Henrietta loses touch with her family. Ms. Borromeo is so on point in whatever part of the emotional spectrum her character happens to be. Worried when her sister leaves, resentful when she feels abandoned, righteous in her faith, angry at being overwhelmed with responsibility. But the love she embraces her sister with toward the end is stalwart and pure. And she has the singing voice of an angel. The dialogue between the sisters on faith in God and faith in Grand Observation is both intimate and cosmic and natural.
Topper Fabregas as the bumbling Peter Shaw is entirely watchable and amusing. He too rides the waves of his character’s feelings towards Henrietta. Peter Shaw is fictional, though. The angle provides good material for starry reflections on life, and shows Henrietta to be not such a loser when it comes to love, even if she doesn’t get the guy.
The support from the cast gives Ms. Azanza-Dy the inner space to explore Henrietta in all her frailty and glory. When Peter confesses to Willamina that he too yearns to have Henrietta’s sense of wonder at finding or discovering something, we know what he’s talking about because we see it in Ms. Azanza-Dy’s almost lusty desire to learn and see what no one else does. At a later point when Peter calls her not by her given name, but reverts to Miss Leavitt, and claims the finiteness of the universe, you see the dismay and heartbreak in her eyes.
The play makes scathing swipes at gender inequality, set at the turn of the century when suffragists, or those who favored women to have the right to vote, were considered troublemakers. Henrietta demanded to be recognized for her groundbreaking work on star mapping, constantly facing an uphill battle in a man’s world for acknowledgment. But it’s to the writer’s slight discredit that Henrietta’s deafness, a condition that developed in her adult years, was hardly given any emphasis except in a line or two mentioned, or when she would show her neck loop hearing aid that would amplify sound like a microphone. In this day and age when inclusion is the transformed version of #MeToo, Henrietta Leavitt could have also been presented as a significant role model for audiences from the deaf community. It also turns out that Annie Cannon had hearing loss, never mentioned in the script. But it’s also highly possible that there may not be much historical information as source material to expound on this aspect of their lives.
The set transformed through space and time. A church façade, seamlessly fades into an attic office. Then with just a suggestion of railings, becomes a deck on a cruise liner. And we are constantly treated to a silent sky of twinkling twinkling little stars.
But at the end of this review, we must exult at that transcendent final scene. There is no death, only the constancy of light. As Henrietta shimmers in her final moments, becoming a literal star, the orchestration of light, shadow, mist and silhouette was utterly, breathtakingly magical. My only wish is to trust the audience a tad more and hold the sound of silence for an extended period of time before the sound of the universe hums in. In those moments of silence, the sky would then indeed be perfect in its silence.
Tickets are available at TicketWorld (www.ticketworld.com.ph) and at the gate.