While reward often requires sacrifice, it’s best not to forget that hard work and persistence are also required. That’s one of the takeaways from Bay Area-based playwright Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky. The Ross Valley Players are presenting the historical drama in Ross through Feb. 9.
Gunderson’s look at America’s first female astronomers predates Margot Lee Shetterly’s similar Hidden Figures by a few years. While Shetterly’s novel and subsequent film tell the story of the racial and gender challenges faced by the female mathematicians working behind the scenes of the NASA space program, Gunderson looks at the female “computers” working at the Harvard College Observatory at the turn of the 20th century.
After Henrietta Leavitt (Isabelle Grimm) graduates from Radcliffe College, the Harvard College Observatory offers her a staff position. She joins Williamina Fleming (Pamela Ciochetti) and Annie Jump Cannon (Rachel Kayhan) as “computers,” responsible for the reading and logging of a series of glass-plate photographs taken through the observatory telescope. She does not, however, get the chance to actually look through the telescope, as Peter Shaw (Peter Warden), the assistant to the head of the Observatory, informs her that’s just not something that women can do.
So Henrietta changes the course of science from her desk, while trying to balance familial responsibilities, her sometimes-strained relationship with her sister Margaret (Alicia Piemme Nelson), a possible romance with Shaw and personal health issues. (Cue the Camille-like cough.)
Gunderson took what could be a rather dry subject and surrounded it with enough wit and heart to make for a very entertaining piece of theater, though the compression of the timeline of events covered gives the second act a rushed feeling (Leavitt’s illness comes out of nowhere).
Director Chloe Bronzan cast the production well, with Grimm effectively portraying the sense of wonder and joy that accompanies discovery and the struggle for personal fulfillment. Great supporting work is provided by Ciochetti and Kayhan as fellow “computers,” Nelson as the sister who puts her own dreams on the backburner and Warden who is quite effective as a man struggling with society’s norms while being entranced by a “modern” woman.
It’s nice to be reminded that there was a time in this country when the pursuit of truth through science was something to be respected and, also, of the difference one good, strong-willed person can make.