Produced by: TheatreWorks
Featuring: Elena Wright, Matt Citron, Jennifer Le Blanc, Sarah Dacey Charles, Lynne Sofer
Directed by: Meredith McDonough
When: January 15-February 9, 2014
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, California
Tickets: $19 (30 and under)-$73 (savings available for educators and seniors). Visit theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.
Most of us have heard of Edwin Hubble, for whom that big telescope in the sky is named, but fewer of us have heard of Henrietta Leavitt, even though her work was a key in the work Hubble did to demonstrate that the universe was much, much larger than just our Milky Way galaxy.
TheatreWorks is staging a charming little play about Leavitt, "Silent Sky," by Lauren Martin Gunderson, that tells Leavitt's story in a moving fashion, and serves as a kind of lyric poem about any struggle for accomplishment.
We meet Leavitt when she is a young Radcliffe graduate who has just accepted a job in the astronomy department at Harvard in 1900. Her sister, Margaret, wants her to stay home and live the usual life of home and children, but Henrietta has big questions about the stars and their meaning, and our place among them all, and hopes to find answers in her career.
Daughters of a preacher, the two women have very different ideas about heaven.
But when she gets to Harvard, Henrietta learns she doesn't get to use Professor Edward Pickering's telescope. Instead, she is put in a room with the rest of "Pickering's harem" of women to examine photo plates of star fields.
She is working with Williamina Fleming who used to be Pickering's maid and Annie Jump Cannon. In the play, Henrietta is very excited to meet those two, because she knew they had already established systems for classifying stars.
Leavitt, by working sleeplessly and without extra pay, makes a major discovery regarding how to study stars, and is eventually gratified to learn that her work came to mean something. Especially, that she was right about the universe being larger than the Milky Way, despite all the men at Harvard thinking the Milky Way was all there was.
All of that (as far as I can tell after a little Googling) is historically accurate. Gunderson, with a witty and at times emotional script, is doing a good thing by bringing wider light to what Leavitt accomplished, and under what circumstances.
What a difference a hundred years or so makes: When the one man in the cast announces to the very sternly dressed women who are examining the photographic plates of star fields that he has more work for "you girls," there was definite susurration in the audience on Saturday at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Followed by laughter.
These days, we call female children girls. Adult females are women.
And, the three women of "Pickering's Harem" do bristle a bit, but they are all dedicated to and proud of their work, and many of their jokes are delivered at the expense of men, onstage or off.
Henrietta tells Williamina she has issues with science. "The whole of it?" Williamina asks. "We do not appear to know where we are. Astronomically," Henrietta says. "Which is shocking. ... We've been looking up for millenia and we don't know how far away those stars are? We don't know if the Milky Way is the universe? That's just unacceptable."
"You're fun," Williamina responds. "But here's some perspective. I was Pickering's housekeeper before he brought me here. So we're a lot of things, but at present we are cleaning up the universe for the men. And making fun of them behind their backs. It's worked for centuries."
Elena Wright, in her TheatreWorks debut, carries most of the play on her slender shoulders, as Leavitt. Because of her performance, Leavitt's love of learning, and frustration at being held back in the world of men, become palpable.
Sarah Dacey Charles puts considerable spine in the character of Cannon, plus wisdom and wit. Cannon is the character (I think; you try reading my notes) who tells the younger Leavitt that her tears of frustration will either drown her, or propel her.
Well ... they propel her.
Lynne Soffer, as Fleming, gets most of the best laughs, usually when making fun of men. Fleming, in the play as in history, was a Scottish schoolteacher whose husband abandoned her and their child upon arrival in America. (I am chagrined to have to say that it is remotely possible that the cad, James Orr Fleming, may be remotely related to me.) Fleming was Pickering's maid, and helped take over the business of cataloguing stars.
Jennifer Le Blanc, who was excellent at TheatreWorks in 2012 in "33 Variations," is also excellent here, as Henrietta' sister, Margaret. Margaret loves her sister, but refuses to follow her to Harvard. She stays home to wed and make babies. But always is she home base to her family. Le Blanc brings a maternal love and strength to the role that is quite pleasing to see, and key to the role.
Matt Citron is quite good in an unenviable role: He is the spineless worm who falls in love with Henrietta but takes years to work up the courage to do anything about it, and then ... well .. see the play. He is very good in the role, and is joyous in one of the play's last big laughs, when his character admits to having been wrong in his views about the Milky Way and the universe.
Really, another in a long string of casting triumphs by TheatreWorks Casting Director Leslie Martinson.
Meredith McDonough, who was the director of TheatreWorks' New Works Festival for a while, before running off to become Associate Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky, directed "Silent Sky," and did a fine job, as usual. And in quick-step I am told they only had three weeks to rehearse, which ain't much.
Annie Smart, who designed the delightful set in the 2010/11 season for "Auctioning the Ainsleys," produced a set for "Silent Sky" that manages to imply the dome of an observatory without being an observatory, and that makes the women's office and the Leavitt's home seem real.
Paul Toben's lighting design takes us through that set from the star-filled skies of 1900 to the births of stars seen more than a century later through the Hubble telescope.
Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes took us from the farm to the city, and to the time of suffragettes in a way that not only told a story, but earned an audience laugh or two while advancing the story.
This is not the most powerful play TheatreWorks has ever staged, but it is a very good one, and is, as one wise lady described it to me after the performance, comforting. It is comforting to know that Gunderson and TheatreWorks and this production are recognizing someone who overcame chauvinism to accomplish something worthwhile.