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Theater Review: "Silent Sky"

"Silent Sky,” about three women who dared not call themselves astronomers but who advanced the science immeasurably at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.
Photo credit:
Lamb’s Players Theatre

Young playwright Lauren Gunderson seems to be making a career of writing plays about little-known women scientists. San Diego playgoers saw her play about mathematician/physicist the Marquise du Châtelet last year.

Now Lamb’s Players Theatre brings us “Silent Sky,” about three women who dared not call themselves astronomers but who advanced the science immeasurably at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

These women worked at the Harvard Observatory and, a bit like the NASA mathematicians in “Hidden Figures,” were called “computers” and treated more like secretaries than scientists, confined to an office-like workspace and not allowed to use the telescope. 

The protagonist here is Henrietta Leavitt (Rachael VanWormer), the spunky new girl at the observatory.

A Radcliffe grad, she is regularly blown away by the sight of the night sky and suspects that current astronomical wisdom – that the Milky Way is all that’s up there – is incorrect. 

Henrietta leaves behind her sister Margaret (Caitie Grady), whom she unsuccessfully tries to take with her.

But Margie stays in Wisconsin with their (unseen) father.

Henrietta is ushered into her workspace by Peter Shaw (Brian Mackey), the young, bumbling apprentice to the boss (the unseen Dr. Edward Charles Pickering), where she is given the task of calculating the magnitude of stars from the observatory’s collection of photographic plates and recording these numbers in notebooks. 

Her first question: “When may I use the telescope?” 

“You can’t,” says Shaw.

When Shaw finally goes away and Henrietta gets to talk to her fellow “computers” – Annie Cannon (the “leader,” played by Cynthia Gerber) and Williamina Fleming (Deborah Gilmour Smyth, described by Shaw as “Scottish stock, swift and angry”), Henrietta’s first complaint is that she didn’t come there to “bookkeep the stars” (though that is exactly why she was hired). 

“This is why we try not to speak to Mr. Shaw,” Cannon notes, and much of the play shows them trying to get around Shaw’s condescending attitude. But the women of the observatory – jocularly known as “Pickering’s harem” – lived in those infuriating times right before suffrage, when women essentially had no rights. 

Though Gunderson posits an imaginary not-very-believable romance between Shaw and Henrietta, the truth is that all these women put their heads down, tried to stay away from Shaw and did the work, regardless of the lack of recognition. 

One indication of the invisibility of these women: Henrietta was nominated for the Nobel prize in physics (there is no Nobel in astronomy) in 1926. They did not know she had died four years earlier.  

VanWormer plays Henrietta with the grit and determination they all had to have, but also with the sheer wonder of the universe they were measuring. Her delight is infectious.

Gilmour Smyth’s Fleming was the first female “computer” at the observatory, given the job by Pickering, so disgusted with the men he had hired for the job that he fumed, “My maid could do better.” Fleming was his housekeeper, and she did do better. Gilmour Smyth is terse, ironic and funny as the senior computer in the group.

The change in social climate is illustrated by Gerber’s no-nonsense Cannon, who who not only came up with a system for classifying stars based on surface temperature but was also a suffragette, and is shown at one point with her “Votes for Women” sash – and daring to wear slacks. Gerber exudes confidence and not a little annoyance at Shaw and the lack of recognition they all suffer.

Mackey is terrific in the thankless role of Shaw, portrayed by Gunderson as so utterly graceless, clueless and frankly annoying that he’s almost a stick figure.

But Mackey makes him at least amusing with gestures, movements and funny line deliveries.

Sean Fanning’s set design is simple and utilitarian, exactly right since it has to depict the “office,” part of the Leavitt home in Wisconsin, an ocean liner and  the star field (Kudos to Michael McKeon for those projections).

Jemima Dutra’s turn-of-the-century costumes are are excellent, as is Nathan Peirson’s lighting design. 

Special praise to Deborah Gilmour Smyth for the sound design and her original music. 

It’s wonderful to see these women finally getting the recognition they were denied in life. And thanks to Lamb’s Players for making this story a riveting theatrical experience.

The details

“Silent Sky” plays through May 28, 2017 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado. 

Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm; Wednesday at 2:30 pm.; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (619) 437-6000 or lambsplayers.org