Intimate, feminist 'Silent Sky' worth a trip to Know Theatre

by John David Back Ah, there's nothing quite like the feeling of inadequacy you get when someone with far less than you accomplishes far more. I relish that twang of guilt I get knowing I've…

by John David Back

Ah, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of inadequacy you get when someone with far less than you accomplishes far more. I relish that twang of guilt I get knowing I’ve squandered countless precious hours watching television and texting. “Silent Sky,” the story of female astronomer Henrietta Leavitt playing at the Know Theatre through May 14, proves without a doubt that I am what you’d call “generally lazy.”

Henrietta, played by a pretty loud Maggie Lou Rader, is a 19th century “computer” — a woman who computes — for her male astronomer superiors. She and her (all female) colleagues received images of the stars and logged information about them. They weren’t allowed to use the telescope or to have titles. They got paid 25 cents an hour. The sole male, Peter Shaw (played by Rader’s real-life husband, Justin McCombs), gives Henrietta a tour when she first starts her job and laughs in her face when she asks when she can use the telescope.

Still, Henrietta makes significant discoveries.

Silent Sky left me with the distinct impression that behind every major happening there are myriad untold stories. It also left me to chew on my male privilege for a little bit on my walk home.

The rest of the cast were all women and were great. Her sister Margie (Miranda McGee) plays the dutiful family-woman counterpart to the aloof, workaholic Henrietta. The line from the highly religious Margie that stuck with me the most was something like: “We’re both looking in the same direction, but quite distinctly.” The sisters both looked to the sky. Beautiful. I think I got teary-eyed at that. May have been allergies. I’ll never tell.

The love story with the goober Shaw was mostly believable, but I wasn’t that interested in it. It seemed there to complete the picture that Henrietta’s work would always be the real love of her life. It was also not lost on me that the only male character is a bumbling goof who half the time can’t speak and the other half is wrong about basic astronomy and takes three years to ask Henrietta on a date. (And that first date, by the way, was a two-month long boat ride to and around Europe. I guess this was 115 years before Netflix and chill.)

Know Theatre, on Jackson Street just north of Central Parkway,  is one of the best places to see live theatre in the city. Tickets are all 20 bucks, and on Wednesdays it’s free. It’s small, it’s got a bar, and every seat has a great view of the stage. Hell, the front row is actually on the stage. During a scene where Henrietta was soliloquizing and carrying a banker’s box, she almost smacked a front-row woman in the head with it. I feel guilty about it now, but at the time I was kind of curious to see it happen.

What I loved about the performance was this:
– Henrietta’s passion for the work made me want to go home and make discoveries.
– It showed history often just gives us famous — read: male — names to remember. If not for these women computers, we’d never have put a man on the moon or had the Hubble Telescope or known the size of the universe or had me writing this review.
– Know is just awesome for this kind of small, intimate performance
– Only one cell phone went off, and it only rang twice.
– Anything that makes you look under the surface at your own understanding is a win in my book. Questioning your own beliefs is critical.

I highly recommend you go see “Silent Sky.” It’s two hours, including a 15-minute intermission to chug two more gin and tonics. Take a woman in your life and tell her you love her and that you’d never prohibit her from using advanced space-related measurement devices.


Photo by Zackariah Cole //

John David Back is a Cincinnati native who lives and works in OTR. He’s an avid reader and a mediocre writer who loves the experience of art and beauty. Tell him what he should experience and send fan mail to

My notes from the show: 
– no assigned seats
– you sort of just line up and pick a seat
– drinks in the theatre
– no bad seats – so small
– most affordable theatre in Cincinnati
– full time staff of 6 and over 300 performances
– free on Wednesdays


First act
– women have control in their ‘harem’ but no actual title or rights or power
– the love story is quirky and a bit sad
– Henrietta is extremely strong willed and driven – loves her work to an insane degree, even from home
– wants to find where we are in the universe
– “we’re both looking in the same direction”
– teared up several times, particularly when she’s making a discovery. At the moment she’s just a victim of the times, nothing new in this revelation
– 25 cents an hour
– it was very – act-Y at first – bit I warmed up to her.
– her hair is dyed clearly
– a woman’s cell phone went off

Second Act
– she comes back
– he’s married
– her discovery provides the input to find the distance between us and stars
– Hubble uses it to prove out the existence of billions of other galaxies
– She gets deathly sick
– women get the vote
– they let her use the telescope once before she dies. so sad.