A review of Lauren Gunderson’s play “Silent Sky,” which brings to light the achievements of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. On stage at Taproot Theatre through Feb. 27.
For nearly a century, the stories of women’s major contributions to modern science were not widely known or appreciated — with the rare exception of, say, a celebrated Madame Curie.
That’s shifted, at least theatrically, with notable science-oriented bio-dramas like Anna Ziegler’s “Photograph 51” (about Rosalind Franklin’s critical role in uncovering the double helix aspect of DNA), Mac Wellman’s “Hypatia” (about a 5th C. mathematician and inventor) and multiple works by prolific California playwright Lauren Gunderson, including “Silent Sky.”
The latter, which premiered in 2014, focuses on Henrietta Leavitt, a trailblazing astronomer who surmounted gender bias and other obstacles to become a pioneering force in mapping the cosmos.
By Lauren Gunderson. Through Feb. 27 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle; $20-$46 (206-781-9707 or taprootheatre.org).
In Taproot Theatre’s Seattle debut of “Silent Sky,” one encounters a fairly standard, semi-biographical tribute to a woman for her persistence, gumption and vision.
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There’s little of the imaginative use here of theatrical time and space to explore theoretical discovery, of the kind seen in such dramas that valorize female scientists as Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” and Nick Payne’s “Constellations” (now running at Seattle Repertory Theatre).
“Silent Sky” is more of a straightforward, chronological (and dramatically formulaic) account of Leavitt and her achievements. Those limitations aside, Leavitt’s fairly obscure (to non-physicists) work deserves the attention, and gets it cogently and agreeably from Gunderson and the polished Taproot mounting directed by Karen Lund.
Hana Lass brings intensity to the role of a fiercely committed, temperamentally flawed Henrietta, born in Boston in 1868. The keenly intelligent daughter of a minister, Leavitt studied at Radcliffe College, where she became fascinated by astronomy.
Soon after graduation she lost her hearing. And the play gets going when, wearing a primitive hearing aid (a sort of amplifier necklace), Henrietta secures a job at the Harvard College Observatory run by noted astronomer Edward Charles Pickering (whom we hear much of but never see).
Henrietta joins other women in measuring and cataloging the brightness of stars photographed by telescope, onto glass plates. She expects more status and latitude, and boldly objects to the grunt work, but on her own time analyzes more closely thousands of variable stars (stars of variable luminosity), gathering evidence. After they’re published in a scientific journal, her findings help lead to a further understanding of astronomy, and strongly influenced other more recognized experts in the field (including Edwin Hubble).
While a famous telescope was named after Hubble, Henrietta has been memorialized via the asteroid 5383 Leavitt and the moon crater Leavitt. (How cool is that?) After her untimely death from cancer in 1921, her colleague Sorin Bailey noted “she had the happy faculty of appreciating all that was worthy and lovable in others, and was possessed of a nature so full of sunshine that, to her, all of life became beautiful and full of meaning.”
In “Silent Sky,” all is not sunny. Gunderson injects drama by imagining (or amplifying?) a tiresome rift with Henrietta’s sister, Margaret (Candace Vance), who repeatedly carps about her sibling’s unwomanly ambition and workaholism.
There is also a rocky almost-romance with fictional co-worker Peter Shaw (Calder Jameson Shilling), which comes off as a strained, wishful contrivance.
But Shilling is a compelling actor who makes the most of this stiff fellow who gradually softens as his admiration for Henrietta grows. And his rapport with Lass, a dazzler throughout, crackles.
So does Henrietta’s camaraderie with supportive colleagues played by Kim Morris and Nikki Visel. That’s the authentic core of the story: these gifted, unsung women working together at meager salaries, who helped us better understand our vast universe.