Photo courtesy of @JoeyClayStudio
By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – A few years ago, audiences were surprised to learn about African-American female mathematicians hired as “computers” working at NASA during the Space Race era through the film Hidden Figures.
Now, theater has its say in revealing hidden female heroes impacting science in playwright Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky,” running through Dec. 22 at American Stage.
The play charts the journey of Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921) and her passionate desire to determine the earth’s place in the universe while revealing the profound impact three driven and determined women researchers had on the field of astronomy.
Played engagingly by Susan Maris, Leavitt is confronted by a series of hurdles after gaining a position at the Harvard College Observatory as one of its vital “computers” – alongside Annie Jump Cannon (1863 – 1941), played by Vickie Daignault — and Williamina Fleming (1857-1911), portrayed by Karel K. Wright.
Hired to work under observatory director Edward Charles Pickering, who is referred to but not depicted in the play, Henrietta is schooled on the role of women in the all-male department by senior computers Cannon and Fleming. As her two mentors, Daignault and Wright bring lovable and lively snark and spark to their roles.
Henrietta, hired to measure the brightness and positions of stars in the sky through images on glass plates, learns that the women – referred to patronizingly as “Pickering’s harem” — aren’t allowed to touch the observatory’s prized telescope or even be allowed to investigate or write about their own discoveries.
Instead, Cannon and Fleming encourage Leavitt to see the importance of their work and push herself to track the mysteries of the faraway stars with pride and excellence – which ultimately leads to Leavitt’s phenomenal discoveries as the years pass.
The play also presents the dilemmas Leavitt faces as she decides to “work” at Harvard rather than remain with her sister Margaret (Kate Berg) at their father’s farm in Wisconsin.
At times, Leavitt is led to question her own missed opportunities to engage in family ties or even fully realized romance – the possibility of which is presented through the character of Peter Shaw (played with goofy charm by Benjamin T. Ismail), a less-than-impassioned astronomer who’d rather be an actor.
The only fictional character in the play, Shaw’s presence supposedly (one assumes), highlights Leavitt’s struggle to balance both her career goals and a woman’s “expected” romantic, familial tendencies.
Set during the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement, through the character of Cannon — a member of the National Women’s Party — Gunderson reveals aspects of the growing battle to gain the vote for women.
The performances are all strong, and under director Kristin Clippard’s able direction, we move fairly seamlessly through the play’s sometimes philosophical moments and jumps in time. Lynne Chase’s lighting design and Jerid Fox’s projections inject satisfying visual elements into the piece.
Although the latter part of the first act seemed to get bogged down attempting to weave in the fictional romance between Leavitt and the bumbling Shaw, the play’s second act moves along at a good pace.
Ultimately “Silent Sky” leaves all the characters – and the audience – in a place of triumphant wonder at the meticulously recorded accomplishments and calculations of the female computers, upon whose work later astronomers such as Edwin Hubble would build their own scientific discoveries.
An excellent play for young people, this is a perfect way to celebrate Women’s History Month 2020 a little early (or celebrate 2019’s very late) — and makes for both informative and enjoyable theater.
“Silent Sky” is at American Stage, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg, until Sunday, Dec. 22. Call (727) 823-PLAY (7529) or visit AmericanStage.org.
To reach J.A. Jones, email email@example.com