Solidarity among female pioneers in bracing drama ‘The Women Who Mapped the Stars’
CAMBRIDGE — "Everyone stands on someone else's shoulders,'' declares a fervent young astronomer named Cecilia Payne midway through Joyce Van Dyke's "The Women Who Mapped the Stars.''
That image of transgenerational solidarity is invoked more than once in Van Dyke's intricate and bracing new drama, which ranges across time and space — the play's central preoccupations — to illustrate the connections among real-life women of science from two different eras.
The female pioneers we see onstage are united in their struggles against male condescension and exclusion, in their transformative achievements, and, initially at least, in the neglect of those achievements by posterity. Directed by Jessica Ernst and featuring an all-female cast, "The Women Who Mapped the Stars'' is intent on rectifying the omissions and distortions of history — so intent that didactic stretches occasionally slow the play down, breaking the otherwise engrossing spell cast in the play's world premiere by Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater.
Amanda Collins brings an avid intelligence to her portrayal of the British Cecilia, who when we first see her is a student at the male-dominated University of Cambridge in 1923. Cecilia's role models are four female astronomers in the other Cambridge who worked at the Harvard College Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Henrietta Swan Leavitt (Sarah Oakes Muirhead), Williamina Fleming (Becca A. Lewis), Annie Jump Cannon (Sarah Newhouse), and Antonia Maury (Christine Power). The performances are strong across the board, although Lewis overdoes Williamina's Scottish accent, making her hard to understand at times.
The real-life Cecilia Payne did work at the Harvard Observatory in the 1920s, and made the breakthrough discovery as a graduate student that stars consist largely of hydrogen. But the play imagines her path converging with those of the other women in 1900, by dint of time travel ("Can we not bend time?'' she blithely says to the startled group). Cecilia is eager to seek guidance from her forbears in an up-close-and-personal way, pressing them with such queries as: "Can I be who I am?. . . Can I be who I need to be?''
Those are questions that at least a couple of the other astronomers seem to be wrestling with themselves, though certainly not Power's Antonia, a fearless feminist who boasts that she's "got plenty of acid in my constitution'' and proves it with her blunt-spoken critiques of gender inequities such as unequal pay for the same work. But what Cecilia and her forbears have in common is the experience of being patronized and shunted aside by men in the workplace — in 1900, policy prohibited women from even using the observatory telescopes — and then shortchanged by posterity, their discoveries credited to male astronomers and astrophysicists.
A similar desire to illuminate little-known chapters of women's history ran through the 2016 film "Hidden Figures,'' reflecting the culture's desire, stronger than at any point in memory, to recover untold women's stories, of all kinds.
Van Dyke, who teaches playwriting and Shakespeare at Harvard and Northeastern, has won acclaim for such plays as "The Oil Thief'' and "A Girl's War.'' Her "Daybreak'' is receiving its Off-Broadway premiere this month at the Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre. In "The Women Who Mapped the Stars,'' Van Dyke takes a strikingly different approach than playwright Lauren Gunderson did with mostly the same historical figures in "Silent Sky,'' which received a splendid New England premiere one year ago at Boston's Flat Earth Theatre. The chief protagonist of "Silent Sky'' is Leavitt, whose breakthrough discovery enabled astronomers (including Edwin Hubble) to later calculate the distance between Earth and remote stars and galaxies. By contrast, the focus of "The Women Who Mapped the Stars'' is more diffuse, although it is through Cecilia's eyes that we absorb the meaning of the lives and careers unfolding before us.
And it is Cecilia who, in a moment of despair over the way "the stigma of intelligence'' is used against women, voices what amounts to both a lament and a sweeping indictment: "There isn't one square inch on earth where a woman can stand and be who she is.'' But "The Women Who Mapped the Stars'' underscores how much Cecilia and the others contributed to enlarging the space that women could occupy, reminding us with a stirring final tableau that in mapping the stars, these pioneers were also mapping the future.
THE WOMEN WHO MAPPED THE STARS
Presented by Nora Theatre Company. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through May 20. Tickets start at $25. 617-576-9278, www.CentralSquareTheater.org