While reward often requires sacrifice, best not to forget that hard work and persistence are required as well. That’s one of the takeaways from Bay Area-based playwright Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky. The historical drama is being presented by the Ross Valley Players in Ross through Feb. 9.
Gunderson’s look at America’s first female astronomers predates Margot Lee Shetterly’s similar Hidden Figures by a few years. While Shetterly’s novel and subsequent film tell the story of the racial and gender challenges faced by the female mathematicians working behind the scenes of the NASA space program, Gunderson looks at the female “computers” at work at the Harvard College Observatory at the turn of the twentieth century.
After graduating from Radcliffe College, Henrietta Leavitt (Isabelle Grimm) is offered a staff position at the Harvard College Observatory. She will join Willamina Fleming (Pamela Ciochetti) and Annie Jump Cannon (Rachel Kayhan) as a “computer”, responsible for the reading and logging of a series of glass-plate photographs taken through the observatory telescope. She will not, however, get the chance to actually look through the telescope, as Peter Shaw (Peter Warden), the assistant to the head of the Observatory, informs her that’s just not something that women can do.
Henrietta will just have to change the course of science from her desk, which she does while trying to balance familial responsibilities, her sometimes-strained relationship with her sister Margaret (Alicia Piemme Nelson), a possible romance with Shaw, and personal health issues. (Cue the Camille-like cough.)
Gunderson has taken what could be a rather dry subject and surrounded it with enough wit and heart to make for a very entertaining piece of theatre, though the compression of the time of the events covered gives the second act a rushed feeling (Leavitt’s illness comes out of nowhere.)
Director Chloe Bronzen has cast it well, with Grimm effectively portraying the sense of wonder and joy that comes with discovery and the struggle for personal fulfillment. There’s great supporting work from Ciochetti and Kayhan as fellow “computers”, Nelson as the sister who puts her own dreams on the backburner, and Warden who is quite effective as a man struggling with society’s norms while being entranced by a “modern” woman.
It’s nice to be reminded that there was a time in this country that the pursuit of truth through science was something to be respected and of the difference one good, strong-willed person could make.
‘Silent Sky’ runs through Feb. 9 at the Barn Theatre in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. Thurs, 7:30pm; Fri. & Sat., 8:00 pm, Sun., 2:00 pm. $14–$29. 415.456.9555. rossvalleyplayers.com
Photos by Robin Jackson
This review originally appeared in an edited version in the Pacific Sun.