Henrietta Swan Leavitt grasped for the stars at a time when women were usually confined to home and hearth.
An astronomer who revolutionized our understanding of the vastness of the universe years before women even won the right to vote, Leavitt is a fascinating historical figure, an unsung pioneer and a feminist heroine. Her largely forgotten story is the crux of Lauren Gunderson's witty new play "Silent Sky," deftly directed by Meredith McDonough in its regional premiere through Feb. 9 at TheatreWorks.
Gunderson ("By and By," "I and You," "Bauer") is an up-and-coming local playwright who deserves kudos for exploring Leavitt's legacy. She's also nimble at marrying science and art in a highly amusing manner. But some of the gravitas of Leavitt's narrative gets undercut by the play's focus on themes of family and romance at the expense of scientific adventure.
Henrietta (Elena Wright) spends every penny of her dowry to get to Harvard in 1893 for a shot at working with the world's finest telescope. Alas, women are never let anywhere near that equipment, not even after they discover 2,400 Cepheid stars. Before Henrietta, these luminous blinking stars were thought to be quite rare. After her work, it was possible to measure the distance between stars, which revealed not only the parameters of our galaxy but also the existence of matter outside it.
But the observatory has the ultimate glass ceiling, and Leavitt is never permitted the luxury of chasing her breakthrough to its logical conclusion. She died young, of cancer, but eventually her work lit the way for Edwin Hubble's discovery that the universe is ever expanding. In 1925, the Swedish Academy of Sciences tried to nominate her for the Nobel Prize, only to learn that she had died of cancer years earlier.
Wright radiates intelligence and a passion for the stars matched by an impatience with the dunderheads in her midst. The chief among those is her boss Peter Shaw (a charming Matt Citron), a smug scientist who prefers doctrine over truth. He works overtime to make sure the "girl's department" knows its place.
Lynne Soffer and Sarah Dacey Charles sparkle as Williamina and Annie Jump Cannon, the wisecracking women who do the grunt work for the geniuses at Harvard. The tart banter and sharp camaraderie between Henrietta and her colleagues as well as her practical sister Margaret (a wry turn by Jennifer Le Blanc) are the heart of the play. These women stick together even when following different paths. One becomes a suffragette, another has 12 grandchildren and writes a symphony.
But far too much of the narrative is dominated by the romantic entanglement between Henrietta and Peter. While these awkward courtship scenes are nicely written and exuberantly performed, they distract from the real love story in the play, the obsession between Henrietta and her stars. It's also disappointing that we never get to watch Henrietta face off against the head of the department, Charles Pickering, who liked to refer to his female assistants as his harem. Too much of the conflict of the play is condensed into the connection between Henrietta and Peter, when she's really a woman doing battle with an entire universe of condescension and fear.
So denigrated was her contribution to the scientific community that she began charting the stars at Harvard as an unpaid volunteer and eventually worked her way up to 30 cents an hour.
At its finest, the play captures Henrietta's fervor for the poetry of the heavens, her need to know where we stand amid the vastness of existence. Wright delivers the scientific bits with just the right combination of heat and light. We can feel the electricity of the ideas, even if we don't quite understand the details. The play's ending basks in the giddy pull of transcendence.
Framed by Annie Smart's magical set, a sky ablaze with twinkling stars, McDonough's staging captures the wonder of science as well as the tragedy of Leavitt's overlooked brilliance. If Gunderson hasn't quite mapped out all the complexities of the narrative, there's no denying the truths revealed by "Silent Sky."
By Lauren Gunderson,
presented by TheatreWorks
Through: Feb. 9
Where: Mountain View
Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro. St.
Running time: 2 hours,