It's hard enough to try to get your groundbreaking scientific discoveries taken seriously when they go against the conventional wisdom laid down by the great minds of yore. But trying to do this when you're also a woman in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field, and at a time when women still aren't allowed to vote? Good luck with that.
Silent Sky is one of several plays that San Francisco's Lauren Gunderson has written about scientists, and female scientists in particular. Like her earlier play Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight, which South Coast Rep premiered in 2009 and Symmetry Theatre Company brought to the Bay Area in 2012, this one's also about a brilliant real-life historical scientist struggling against sexism and accepted orthodoxy to gain recognition for her discoveries. But, again like Emilie, it's also about the hunger for knowledge for knowledge's sake, the tension between that obsessive work and personal relationships, and the frustration of there never being enough time in a life to truly finish what you started, having to leave others to carry on your work.
This one's about Henrietta Leavitt, an astronomer at the turn of the 20th century. Employed at the Harvard College Observatory as a "computer," doing the busywork of cataloguing and labeling the stars captured in photographic plates, Leavitt determined a way of measuring the rhythms of stars whose intensity of light fluctuated, making it possible for those who followed her to measure the distance to stars and galaxies and get the first real sense of the size of the universe. All this she did despite being forbidden, as a woman, to use the observatory's telescope herself.
This is the latest in a steady stream of Bay Area productions by Gunderson, who premiered plays with Marin Theatre Company, Crowded Fire Theater and Shotgun Players last year and has another premiere coming up at San Francisco Playhouse in March. Unlike most of her other recent Bay Area productions, Silent Sky is not a world premiere but a second production (it debuted at South Coast Rep in 2011), and that's a good thing. It's one of Gunderson's more complete and polished works, and whatever work has been done on the script since its first production seems to have done it good.
Meredith McDonough's smart staging accentuates the romanticism of the story with stirring piano music by Jenny Giering that swells up as if the characters are about to burst into song. Annie Smart's terrific set depicts an elegant domed observatory, though a telescope is conspicuously and appropriately absent. Along with Fumiko Bielefeldt's prim period costumes, the handsome, old-fashioned wooden furniture roots us in the period.
Elena Wright makes a luminous Henrietta, fit to burst with frustration and drive and unanswered questions that she can't bear to leave unanswered, most notably where exactly we are in the universe. She's feverish in her scientific zeal and pricelessly flustered at any hint of personal entanglement. (She's also practically deaf and reliant on a large hearing aid.) Jennifer Le Blanc exudes kindness and sympathy as Henrietta's sister Margaret, who doesn't pretend to understand all this highfalutin talk but just wants to be there for her family, and is hurt when she feels her sister isn't there for her.
When Henrietta goes to work for Professor Pickering at Harvard, she's so far removed from directly observing the heavens that captivate her imagination that we don't even see the professor in the play. Instead he's represented by his callow apprentice, the amusingly awkward Peter Shaw (Matt Citron), who has a knack for saying the wrong thing and may or may not be any good at science. But Henrietta soon finds a close community with the older women in her department. Sarah Dacey Charles' Annie Cannon comes off stern and forbidding at first, but is warm and enthusiastic when you (and Henrietta) get to know her. Lynne Soffer is wryly funny as Williamina Fleming, Pickering's former housekeeper who now co-runs the department with Annie, but seemingly spends most of her time teasing Henrietta about the obvious crush Peter has on her.
There are a few things in the story that aren't entirely clear, especially the timeframe (it's often hard to know whether it's been months or years between scenes) and the nature of the illness or illnesses that Henrietta suffers from. The play also makes it seem like Leavitt was from Wisconsin when in fact she was born, raised and schooled in Massachusetts, but she did spend some time in Wisconsin later on, so this may be a simplification for dramatic purposes.
Although Silent Sky is a serious period drama, Gunderson's knack for clever dialogue shines throughout, sometimes funny and often aphoristically philosophical. "I insist on the exceptional," Henrietta says early on, and Margaret later tells her, "You asked God a question and he answered. That's the meaning of meaning for most of us."
It's very much a heroine's story in which the other characters are there mostly as a sounding board for Henrietta, occasionally to obstruct her but mostly, ultimately to cheer her on. There's an inherent sentimentality in this kind of narrative, but it exists to be inspirational and certainly succeeds in that. You can't help but root for Leavitt and share in her excitement -- in everyone's excitement -- as she makes her way closer and closer to the stars.
Silent Sky runs through February 9, 2014 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets and information visit theatreworks.org.