Henrietta Leavitt and her glass-ceiling-shattering compatriots, Annie Canon and Williamina Fleming, are the subject of Lauren Gunderson’s 2011 play, “Silent Sky” which covers about 20 years in Leavitt’s life; roughly her years as a Harvard astronomy employee.
This show is a graceful confluence of cast, script, direction and staging that brings this incredible story fully to life. This show is an incredible gift to all of us. Go see it–it demands to be seen and shared and reveled in.
Of course, this being sometime between 1898 and 1901, she wasn’t actually considered an astronomer. She had attended Radcliffe, the “Harvard in skirts,” as she informs one Mr. Peter Shaw, who stands between her and Director Pickering and the telescope, and obtained a bachelor’s, excelling in mathematics and science (including astronomy). She was hired as a “computer,” literally, by Director Pickering, the head of the Harvard College Observatory. Her job, and the job of the other women in the department, was to examine photographic plates in order to measure and catalog the brightness of stars.
This work, her powers of observation and curiosity, led her to discover the relation between the brightness and the period of Cepheid variables (they pulsed). This provided the missing link astronomers needed to determine that there were indeed, other galaxies beyond the Milky Way. This discovery (it sounds so like an “aha! moment” when it was the product of months of work on her own time and calculations and finally, another field altogether which jogged loose the intuitive leap needed, was key to other astronomers establishing that the universe is expanding. It also formed the standard for measuring distance in space.
Her work, and the fact that it was performed by a woman (it took years for this to be acknowledged, but at least it was before she died of cancer in 1921), sent shock waves throughout astronomy, and influenced other disciplines—because if you can measure distance, you can calculate how to get somewhere. Without her discovery, there may never have been a man on the moon.
But this is a play that explores more than just the cosmos-shattering science Leavitt and the other women engendered, as fascinating as that process is, and as engrossing it is watching talented women use their brains and work together. It’s also a play about human relationships. Because not only is Leavitt a woman—she’s also deaf. But then again, so was Annie Cannon. And Williamina Fleming was not just Pickering’s housekeeper; before emigrating from Scotland with her husband and children, she taught school. And Henrietta’s sister, Margaret, is not just a housewife and daughter of a reverend, she is gifted musically and composes. It’s after listening to Margaret play part of a symphony she was composing that Henrietta has the flash of understanding what the pulses really meant. And refreshingly, the play doesn’t just explore the very prim romance between Henrietta and Peter Shaw, it explores the relationships among all of these talented women, some of whom help to shatter other glass ceilings.
This is an inspirational play, obviously, but also very humorous. Characters have dimension; they are not perfect, but most importantly, they grow (even Peter Shaw). Both the overt and covert second-class treatment all the women were too familiar with is entwined matter-of-factly in the story—thankfully, the script avoids preaching. But at the same time, it makes clear how rare and hardy these women are.
The cast is a dream. Laura C. Harris portrays Henrietta Leavitt, in all her intellectual glory, wry self-knowledge (as she admits, she’s able to pursue her independence only because of “daddy’s money”) and pestering determination to get what she wants. It’s a bravura performance and you feel the weight of constantly having to fight for just a modicum of a share.
Holly Twyford as Williamina Fleming delivers some zingers that are Sophia Petrillo crossed with Dorothy Zbornak worthy. Her gift for physical comedy is also on view, providing some delightfully daft moments. One of her finest moments was when, after she delivers a mini-lecture to Peter Shaw on how brains don’t have sex, she leans in close behind him and whispers, “So, are you uncomfortable with how many times I’ve said sex?” He actually paled and leaped out of the chair to his exit.
Nora Achrati plays Annie Cannon, who in real life was also deaf. As Annie, Achrati has all the starchy uprightness a woman manager of the time would need to succeed in a world of men, along with fiercely supporting her women, and in time, becoming a pants-wearing suffragette.
Emily Kester gives us a Margaret Leavitt who stays home and marries and looks after her aging father, the reverend, but doesn’t give in to the martyrdom this role could invite in a lesser actress.
Jonathan David Martin as Peter Shaw is simply hysterical. Incredibly socially awkward, a coward when faced with the disapproval of his father or the powers-that-be of the observatory, he still finds the courage to fall in love with Henrietta. Much later, after he betrays her and himself on several levels, he finds the courage to admit his wrongness and revel in being bested by a superior intellect. Martin finds the honesty in this character.
The staging makes full use of the turntable; sets include the observatory offices the women share, the Leavitt family house in Wisconsin, and Henrietta’s apartment in Cambridge, just down the street from the observatory.
Sueko, along with this cast, finds the humor and humanity and awe in asking the big questions when we’re just small humans. And she understands the excitement and awe when you’ve got a piece of an answer that leads to even more wonderful questions.
This show is a graceful confluence of cast, script, direction and staging that brings this incredible story fully to life. With a deftly light touch, we can really understand that Henrietta stood on the shoulders of unknown, talented women before her, and today’s astronauts stand on her shoulders—and we finally know her name. This show is an incredible gift to all of us. Go see it–it demands to be seen and shared and reveled in.
Running Time: Two hours including a 15-minute intermission.
“Silent Sky” runs through February 23, 2020, at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, DC. For more information, click here.