Silent Sky Shines at Asolo Rep

Lauren Gunderson's play springs from the real life of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, and it's something of a relevation.

By Kay Kipling January 23, 2023

Christian Douglass, Suzanne Grodner, Lise Bruneau, Zoya Martin and Kendra Jo Brook in Asolo Rep's production of Silent Sky.

Image: Cliff Roles

Lauren Gunderson is among the most produced playwrights in the country. Watching her Silent Sky, now onstage at Asolo Rep, it’s easy to see why.

Although Silent Sky deals with matters of science and math, which may sound off-putting to some, it’s nevertheless instantly accessible, as we meet its heroine, Henrietta Leavitt (Kendra Jo Brook), gazing up at the stars in her Wisconsin home sky and longing to study them for a lifetime. Leavitt was a real person, a female astronomer of more than a century ago, who made important discoveries including the “standard candle” that in turn made it possible to research galaxies far beyond our Milky Way.

She did this despite the obstacles of having some hearing loss and not even being allowed near the telescope at Harvard, where she found work as a “computer,” one of several female staff members mapping the sky from photographic plates. In Brook’s portrayal, Leavitt’s passion for the mysteries of the universe feels absolutely real and contagious, even if certain aspects of Gunderson’s story are fictionalized or telescoped through time.

In Silent Sky, Leavitt works with two fellow females, Annie Cannon (Suzanne Grodner), seemingly stern and suffragist, and Williamina Fleming (Lise Bruneau), whose wicked sense of humor pops up sometimes unexpectedly. Both of these women did work at Harvard in the same office as Leavitt; in Gunderson’s play, they seem to also have some sort of a “Boston marriage,” although that’s never spoken of directly.

More liberties are taken with the other two characters of the play. In real life, Leavitt did have a sister, but here that sister, Margaret or Margie (Zoya Martin), is a musician and mother who inadvertently leads to a scientific leap on Leavitt’s part. And then there is Leavitt’s romantic interest, Peter Shaw (Christian Douglass). The audience isn’t sure if he was a real person, or just a representation of the traditional love relationship that Leavitt’s all-consuming dedication to her career and other obligations made impossible.

Douglass and Brook in a scene from Silent Sky.

Image: Cliff Roles

In any case, both Martin and Douglass, FSU/Asolo Conservatory students, certainly match the more experienced actors onstage. Douglass especially wins us over as a man who’s not nearly as sure of himself as he’d like to be, with his physical language often demonstrating that hesitation. And director Seema Sueko has a gift for making little moments, that may seem like almost nothing if read on the page, stand out, both comedically and dramatically.

There is plenty of often gentle comedy here at work, even as a significant life story is being told. Leavitt’s contributions to astronomy, despite the restrictions of her time, continue to empower the work of scientists today and will in the future. Thanks not only to the director and cast, but to the scenic design of Milagros Ponce De Leon and the projections of Shawn Duan, we are able to share the magic of diving into those night skies and being, momentarily, lost in the stars.

Silent Sky continues through March 5 in rotating rep. For tickets, call (941) 351-8000 or visit

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