By Philip Pearce
LAUREN GUNDERSON is described in almost every online bio as the most widely produced playwright in 2017 America. Now the Monterey Bay has an example—our first?—of her work thanks to an exciting new production of Silent Sky at Jewel Theatre, Santa Cruz. The play centers around a little known 20th century female astronomer who made groundbreaking discoveries about our universe that were largely credited to her male contemporaries and colleagues.
Henrietta Leavitt (a radiant and intense Michelle Drexler) is a star-struck amateur astronomer. Just out of Wellesley, she is so endlessly on the go that she now resists worship in her pastor father’s Wisconsin church. As she confides to her sister Margaret (a warm-hearted, outgoing Marissa Keltie) her resistance isn’t theological; she just can’t sit still through yet another Sunday morning service.
When she lands a job at the Harvard Observatory, she is over the moon with excitement. But her cyclonic enthusiasm cools considerably when she checks into Professor Edward Pickering’s second floor office and learns she has been hired to fill a vacancy in a team of women banned from the observatory’s giant telescope. All they do is record routine data taken from photo transparencies of the night sky. Officially known as “computers,” these women are jocularly dismissed on campus as “Pickering’s harem.”
Underwhelmed but hopeful, Henrietta settles in beside two busy workmates, Annie Cannon, played with starchy Mary Poppins zip by Marcia Pizzo, and ex-housemaid named Williamina Fleming, all warmth and Scottish wit in the hands of Diana Torres Koss. Soon Henrietta has managed to turn occasional feminine charm and occasional strident cajolery into access to the telescope and a grudging permission to stay after work for some private astronomy of her own.
All of this happens while she keeps up a busy bantering correspondence with Margaret back home in Wisconsin and staves off the workplace advances of Peter Shaw, a failed actor now employed to deliver daily star transparencies to the computer team and to oversee their work and morale. She’s too busy at first learning important things about a brand of star known as the Cepheid, but she eventually gives in, admits it’s love, and Peter and astronomy become the twin the centers of her life—but only for a time.
It’s all written in a way that makes scientific aspiration attractive and accessible. The struggle just to gain access to the tools and equipment of research, then to persuade a stuffy, male- dominated scientific establishment to accept her revolutionary scientific discoveries has obvious appeal. The moments when Drexler stands suspended in a brilliant corolla of galaxies and speaks passionately to her soul about the vastness and glory of the universe are high points of the script and of this production. Steven Gerlach’s scenic design, Paul Shelton’s lighting and Diana Torres Koss’s music design match the elegance of the written words. The stage picture doesn’t just back-project images of an ever changing cosmos; the galaxies at times move in till both stage and audience are surrounded by a dazzling night sky.
By contrast, the situations Gunderson creates to flesh out the meager personal information that exists about her heroine’s inner life strike me as diverting but less convincing. The blighted computer office romance is a beautifully acted, half comic, half serious battle of the scientific sexes, with Henrietta always the sharp cookie and Peter the unwitting buffoon. These stretches of faux biography are organized with precision and clarity by Susan Myer Silton‘s direction and played with lively commitment by the actors. But they often seem more like the predictable stuff of a slick movie biopic than believable stages in the education of a pioneer astronomer.
Peter Shaw not only figures in plot points created to add human interest to the factual scientific material, he is also the one character in the cast of four who never existed in real life. As such, he not only has to carry the burden of providing romantic comic relief; he also has to represent a whole bumper load of insufferable individuals and attitudes that must have challenged the doughty Henrietta from 1900 to 1920. When the love relationship unexpectedly breaks down, he becomes a caricature chauvinist bigot, stridently trumpeting that Henrietta Leavitt’s theories of the vastness of the universe are overblown nonsense, only to eat his words and turn nice after they are accepted as true. As acted by the energetic, delightful and bombastically funny Aaron Wilton, Shaw is a joy to watch in action. But he is more of an exaggerated abstract idea than a believable human being.
The play continues at the Colligan Theater in the Tannery Arts Center weekends through February 18th.