Where exactly are we in the universe? Henrietta Leavitt’s real-life passion pursuing that question propels Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, at International City Theatre through Sept. 10. Given that Leavitt, as a woman, was not even allowed to look through the telescope at Harvard Observatory, where she worked in the early 1900s as a “human computer,” makes her story that much more extraordinary.
The play follows Leavitt (Jennifer Cannon) as she leaves her sister Margie (Erin Anne Williams) in Wisconsin for Harvard Observatory in Boston and works there for years with two other “computers” of stellar photometry, Annie Jump Cannon (Leslie Stevens) and Scottish immigrant, Williamina Fleming (Jennifer Parsons), who was a former housekeeper to the head of the observatory, Dr. Pickering.
All three women astronomers were known in their time, publishing papers under their own names. (Edwin Hubble even believed that Leavitt deserved a Nobel Prize for her work on Cepheid period-luminosity, which had allowed him to calculate the age of the universe.) But the women know they are underpaid and marginalized by their male colleagues, denied the same opportunities to showcase their abilities.
The lone male character in the play, astronomer Peter Shaw (Eric Wentz), contrasts the women in terms of privilege, but is sufficiently geeky and smitten with Leavitt to make him eminently likable. And the other two women certainly don’t hold their tongues around him either, which adds humor at his expense.
All five performers have been perfectly cast, and are well directed by Todd Nielsen in their respective roles, clearly invested in the story they are telling.
Jennifer Cannon as the wide-eyed Leavitt glows like the stars her character studies, making tangible Leavitt’s wonder and enthusiasm for discovery, as well as her tenaciousness, despite her circumstances as a partially deaf single woman working in a male-dominated field at a time before women could even vote.
Stevens as Annie Cannon and Parsons as Williamina Fleming bring professional acuity to their outspoken roles. (Both invented classifications systems for stars still in use today.)
Erin Anne Williams rounds out the female cast exquisitely as Henrietta’s sister Margie, who, though a music composer, happily chooses the more traditional life of marriage and motherhood, but stays constant in Henrietta’s life. In one beautiful scene, Margie’s music allows Henrietta to make the breakthrough she has been waiting for in understanding the star patterns she has been studying.
Nielsen’s direction keeps the characters in constant motion, which, though sometimes haphazard, makes energetic a play involving so much study. Even the women’s work desks rotate periodically with the seasons, and letters are read aloud by the characters almost conversationally.
In addition to a backdrop of video-projected skies, boxes with glass-plated astral photographs dominate the set, like another character representing Leavitt’s work, following her as she travels from Boston to Wisconsin after her father’s stroke.
Period costumes are richly rendered by Kim DeShazo, with textured fabrics and unfussy buttons and pleats, adding to the play’s unexpectedly modern feel.
In her lifetime, Leavitt discovered more than 2,400 stars as well as the period-luminosity relationship that allowed astronomers to calculate the distances between those stars. To see her life dramatized with so much emotion– from sisterly and romantic love, to feminist fervor, to the excitement, pain and awe of scientific discovery– is quite a stellar experience.
Silent Sky continues at International City Theatre, 330 East Seaside Way, through Sept. 10, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $47 to $49. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 436-4610 or visit ictlongbeach.org.