Two generations before the African American space scientists immortalized in the film Hidden Figures propped up America’s nascent space program, another group of pioneering female “computers” huddled in a cramped office beneath the Harvard College Observatory. For years on end, they examined and recorded the brightness of stars from glass plates photographed through a telescope that was off-limits to them because of their gender. Their groundbreaking achievements, particularly those of the visionary Henrietta Swan Leavitt who evolved a crucial step towards measuring the distance between galaxies, are highlighted in Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, now playing at Ford’s Theatre.
Largely based on fact, the play centers on Leavitt’s all-consuming passion for knowledge and its ultimate effect on her professional and personal life. At the turn of the century, women could hardly have it all. Henrietta cashes in her dowry to support herself in Cambridge, and sacrifices her relationship with her own family to seek answers about the universe.
Gunderson sketches five intriguing, though broadly symbolic characters in her 2011 play. Henrietta, played by Laura C. Harris, bursts with curiosity and bristles within the constraints of a patriarchal society. Her sister Margaret (Emily Kester), a more traditional woman, exerts pressure on Henrietta to stay on the family farm and help care for the pair’s aging father. Yet, Margaret is not without her ambitions. She is a pianist and aspiring composer. In fact, it is Margaret’s musicianship that ultimately catapults Henrietta’s thinking about starlight rhythms in a hugely consequential way.
Leavitt’s trailblazing colleagues are quirky and smart. Holly Twyford as the Scottish Williamina Fleming is wickedly funny. Having started her career as a housemaid to Observatory director E.C. Pickering, she knows how to swim upstream in a male-dominated world while never making waves. She laughs off the team’s misogynistic nickname, “Pickering’s Harem,” and keeps up her business of classifying stars. Nora Achrati runs a tight ship as department head Annie Jump Cannon. But beneath her gruff exterior is a wise and compassionate woman who encourages Henrietta just as her young colleague starts drowning in data whose patterns she can’t yet see.
Harvard astronomer Peter Shaw (Jonathan David Martin) is Silent Sky’s sole fictional character, and the only male in the play. He is the essence of early 20th-century manhood – not quite ready to accept women as full-fledged colleagues, no matter how brilliant they may be. Comically stuffy and awkward, yet endearingly attracted to Henrietta, he, like Margaret, is amazed by Henrietta’s unstoppable drive.
The drama, directed by Seema Sueko, plays out on a gorgeous set by Milagros Ponce de León comprised of two sweeping staircases that lead to a balcony, with a rotating platform below that becomes, by turns, the cramped Cambridge observatory office, Margaret’s Wisconsin farmhouse, and Henrietta’s home. The balcony is reserved for dreams – that is where the telescope dwells, beyond the reach of Henrietta and her colleagues. It doubles as a steamship deck – a place of romance that is ultimately off-limits, too. Rui Rita’s lighting design is especially crucial to a drama focused on the firmament. His sky dazzles and winks, fades and illuminates as if it was a breathtaking array of cosmic dancers.
Ivania Stack’s costume design captures the era perfectly. While Harvard’s “computers” advance towards recognition and equality, their bodies were still tightly confined in voluminous skirts, cinched waists and high collars. When Annie dons culottes and a suffragette’s sash, it’s a breathtaking step forward.
What Silent Sky lacks in nuance, it makes up for in spunk and charm. These women were out to rock the world. They helped push the boundaries of knowledge light years beyond what their male colleagues thought was possible. For that, we are immensely grateful. In this Year of the Woman, Ford’s Theatre gives us another set of heroines to admire.
Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.
André J. Pluess, Sound Design and Original Music; Karma Camp, Choreography; Anne Nesmith, Hair and Makeup Designer; Lisa Nathans, Dialects and Vocal Coach; Brandon Prendergast, Production Stage Manager; Julia Singer, Assistant Stage Manager