In ‘Silent Sky,’ a pioneer claims her place among astronomy’s stars
WATERTOWN — Lauren Gunderson is the most produced living playwright in the nation for the 2016-17 season, according to American Theatre magazine, and from the flurry of recent area stagings of her work, it’s easy to see why.
Plays like “I and You,’’ “The Taming,’’ and “Exit, Pursued by a Bear’’ have revealed Gunderson, still only in her mid-30s, to be an adventurous writer who marries playful whimsy with a spirit of intellectual inquiry and engagement with our times.
She has also dipped into other eras, making it her business to give pioneering but insufficiently celebrated women their dramatic due, while transcending the constricted formulas of the biographical drama. Gunderson’s “Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight,’’ presented three years ago at Cambridge’s Nora Theatre Company, illuminated both the life and the mind of Emilie du Chatelet, an 18th-century mathematician and physicist often described merely as Voltaire’s lover.
Now comes “Silent Sky,’’ another Gunderson play that broadens and deepens history’s portrait of a woman who confronted gender discrimination and restrictions in an overwhelmingly male field: early-20th-century Cambridge astronomer Henrietta Leavitt.
Flat Earth Theatre’s first-rate production of “Silent Sky,’’ a New England premiere deftly directed by Dori A. Robinson at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown, affords you an opportunity to make the acquaintance of both Gunderson and Leavitt while also savoring the excellent performances of a five-member cast led by Erin Eva Butcher.
Butcher’s searching, finely wrought portrayal of Leavitt digs deep into the essence of a woman for whom the sky is anything but silent. To Henrietta, whose scientific curiosity can seem as vast as the universe she’s so eager to explore, the sky is full of answers, if only we can pose the right questions.
It was a breakthrough discovery by Leavitt that enabled astronomers — including Edwin Hubble — to calculate the distance between Earth and remote galaxies and stars. During her career at the Harvard College Observatory, Leavitt also discovered more than 2,400 variable stars, approximately half of those known during her lifetime.
“Silent Sky’’ ranges from 1900, when Henrietta leaves her home in rural Wisconsin and heads east (the real-life Leavitt arrived in Cambridge a bit earlier), to 1920, a year before she died of cancer at the age of 53. Henrietta’s departure from Wisconsin and her determination to have a career trigger consternation in her sister Margaret (Brenna Sweet), a gentle, music-minded homebody.
Once at the observatory, Henrietta throws herself into her work as a “computer,’’ the term referring then to the task of scrutinizing square, windowpane-like photographic plates to measure and record variations in the brightness of stars. What animates Henrietta is a belief that there are galaxies beyond our own — a belief that defies the consensus among her male superiors.
Henrietta’s colleagues at the observatory, also both based on historical characters, are two very different women: Williamina Fleming, played by the delightful Juliet Bowler with a Scottish accent and an air of hearty bonhomie, and Annie Cannon, portrayed by Cassandra Meyer with an intensity of focus that conveys the character’s no-nonsense approach to her work. (Later, in a development that connects the trio’s professional striving and struggles for equality to similar struggles going on in the wider world, Annie becomes a suffragette, marching for women’s right to vote.) The camaraderie among the three actresses, and their characters, is a pleasure to behold.
More problematic is a fictional male character named Peter Shaw, the head astronomer’s apprentice. Though Marcus Hunter delivers a nicely shaded performance as Peter, the character is too bumbling and good-natured to adequately represent the repressive male power structure. Moreover, Peter’s attraction to Henrietta, and hers to him, pushes “Silent Sky’’ into more conventional channels. Soon, she is coping with work-life tension and tradeoffs, the stuff of countless rom-coms.
These detours into overly familiar territory don’t seriously weaken the play because playwright Gunderson’s touch is so sure and so lyrically expressive in capturing the other love of Henrietta’s life: the sky and all its riches. Early in “Silent Sky,’’ before she begins work at the observatory, she exclaims: “I have questions, I have fundamental problems with the state of human knowledge! Who are we, why are we — where are we?’’
That last one, at least, Henrietta Leavitt helped humanity answer.
Play by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Dori A. Robinson. Presented by Flat Earth Theatre. At Black Box Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, through March 25. Tickets: $25, 954-260-3316, flatearth.ticketleap.com/silent-sky