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Triumph and tragedy of 'Silent Sky' open Commonweal's 30th season

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LANESBORO — For Henrietta Leavitt, it was "always the sky."

Leavitt was a Wisconsin girl who was entranced by what she saw overhead on clear nights. She went on to be one of the most influential astronomers of the early 20th century, despite having to struggle against the obstacles placed in front of women who had the ability to achieve great things.

That’s the background to "Silent Sky," the play by Lauren Gunderson that is currently on stage at the Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro. Megan K. Pence portrays Leavitt, who finds that, as for anyone struggling to the top of their field, there will be sacrifices to make and a price to pay — doubly so for women.

Pence shows this determination on the part of Leavitt, while also indicating the hurt and pain that goes not only with rejection of her work, but also with the fear she has lost out on so much of life. She will not be deterred, but as Pence so ably shows us, Leavitt’s dedication also sometimes leaves her empty.

At Harvard, Leavitt works alongside two colleagues, Annie Cannon and Wilhelmina Fleming, who are also stifled in their desire to be more than record-keepers. Elizabeth Dunn is Cannon, who goes from being a by-the-book leader to channeling her frustration into the women’s suffrage movement. Meanwhile, Stela Burdt is Fleming, the Scottish immigrant who was abandoned by her husband but who faces every challenge with biting wit. As has become her forte in recent seasons, Burdt demonstrates sharp comic timing.

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Eric Lee is also in the cast as Peter Shaw, the man Leavitt loves almost as much as the stars. Abbie Cathcart, who in this play shows off a lovely singing voice, is Henrietta’s sister, Margaret.

What could be a powerful drama is hindered somewhat by a first act that doesn’t feel engaging enough. The second act, however, is more focused and pulls us in with its mix of triumph and tragedy.

As would be the case in any play about the heavens, lighting is an important facet, and Paul Epton’s closing display, which turns the interior of the Commonweal into a starry, starry night, is breathtaking.

The essence of "Silent Sky" though, is the touching human story behind an important scientific discovery. It’s a good opening to the Commonweal’s 30th season.

What: "Silent Sky"

When: Through June 23

Where: Commonweal Theatre, 208 Parkway Ave. N, Lanesboro

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Tickets: $35; 800-657-7025 and commonwealtheatre.org

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