- Courtesy Of Robert Eddy/first Light Studios
- Lindsey Newton (left) and Courtney Wood
Lauren Gunderson's Silent Sky dramatizes the story of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, whose discoveries made the measurement of galaxies possible. The play also shows why you've likely never heard of Henrietta, obscured by her gender, not her achievements. In Lost Nation Theater's production, Gunderson's reflective script shows that the science required to study the universe is never far from the philosophy necessary to understand our place in it.
The play's core conflict is the competing claims of family and career. It's not new terrain, but seeing it played out in choices Henrietta makes between 1900 and 1921 adds a historical dimension to the questions that still affect women today.
In Henrietta's case, she leaves her father and sister in Wisconsin to take a job at the Harvard College Observatory, dead set on applying her Radcliffe College education to the discoveries astronomers were making in the prewar 20th century. Her sister, Margaret, is stunned by her rebellious decision, but she's sympathetic, too.
At Harvard, Henrietta joins Williamina Fleming and Annie Cannon in charting the sky by cataloging the stars from glass-plate photographs made on the observatory's refracting telescope. It's detailed work, presumably suited to a woman's patience. Henrietta develops an interest in a particular type of star that pulses rapidly, and she eventually determines the relationship between pulsations and distance, making it possible to calculate the distance between galaxies.
But she and her colleagues aren't allowed to use the telescope. When her paper is published, she receives credit for the core discovery, but other astronomers carry it further without her. Their names — including Edwin Hubble — are familiar ones.
As Gunderson depicts her, Henrietta feels guilty about leaving her sister and father behind and is finally prevailed upon to return to Wisconsin when he grows ill. A modern audience sees missed potential; Gunderson makes the choice, however noble, seem tragic.
Family competes against Henrietta's career, but for a moment it appears that romance may be possible. Gunderson inserts a fictional Harvard astronomer, Peter Shaw, who preserves the sharp hierarchy that relegates women to a much lower rung on the science ladder. Soon he'll grow impressed with Henrietta not only as a scientist but as a person.
They conduct a mannered flirtation, and Gunderson dramatizes the competing claims on Henrietta through letters from and to her family and Peter. It's not especially powerful as storytelling, but it neatly makes the point that Henrietta was continually forced to choose and sacrifice.
When Henrietta looks up at the sky, it all seems worthwhile. During an ocean voyage, she has the chance to see the stars from the sea. Gunderson gives her rapture a touch of poet Walt Whitman's expansiveness, and her zeal for unlocking the mysteries in the sky is genuinely uplifting.
As Henrietta, Courtney Wood evinces such avid curiosity about the world, she seems to gulp for air. Wood makes her character's ambition to understand the universe an unquenchable desire; we understand too well that she'll sacrifice anything for it. It's here that the play's structure, and its performance, are more like biography than drama, since suspense is not the point. Wood's enthusiasm is the production's constant tone.
Lindsey Newton plays Margaret with unforced sincerity and infuses quaint sentiments with heartfelt clarity. She conveys sisterly love while struggling to understand Henrietta's bold decision to leave the family for a career. Newton proves a sweet singer and expressive pianist who bends the melody of a simple hymn to underscore many scenes.
Eve Passeltiner plays the spitfire Annie with drive and sensitivity. She unleashes Annie's eccentricities for warm laughs, then complements them with true passion for science and for women's rights. By evoking intellectual zeal every bit as vivid as Henrietta's, but reining it in to meet men's expectations, Passeltiner neatly contrasts Annie with Henrietta.
G. Richard Ames plays Peter as a man sure of his place in the academic world and just as sure that women don't belong there. As Henrietta's work and ideas challenge his gender assumptions and scientific beliefs, Ames lets each blow land with delicate but undeniable power. With courtly bearing, Ames summons the period beautifully.
Emme Erdossy makes the most of the gently comic role of Williamina, by turns motherly and cerebral as she bustles about the laboratory. Williamina explains the work as "cleaning up the universe for men and making fun of them behind their backs. It's worked for centuries."
Director Gregg Brevoort emphasizes the period by calling for performances of great formality. Emotion becomes somewhat stilted in this style, and the museum-like reverence may honor the characters, but it's not strong drama. Gunderson's diction isn't rarefied enough to merit this grand treatment, and the production is at its best when urgency or humor push against gravity.
John Devlin's scenic design invokes the scale of space itself while providing flexible backdrops for a range of settings. Stars are projected on the back wall of the stage on a massive screen that dwarfs the performers and adds real grandeur. On the stage floor, painted arcs trace the orbits of planets, and, hanging from the ceiling, an array of bare bulbs glow with orange incandescence at key moments. David Schraffenberger's lighting design adds the final bit of celestial magic.
The telescope this play invites viewers to look through takes us through time, not space. We're looking back at how a woman's place in the world was decided a hundred years ago, recognizing what has and hasn't changed. It's bittersweet: Friday's opening night audience melted into applause on seeing Annie's women's suffrage sash.
That more people learn the name Henrietta Leavitt is heartening; that women still struggle to balance love, family and career means that women who couldn’t test their potential at all may long outnumber the unsung ones.**Correction, April 25, 2018: This sentence has been updated to clarify its meaning.