Of all the things that women were not allowed to do in the early 20th century, being barred from using a telescope was one of the more curious.
Yet even though sexism was so pervasive that it reached to the stars, there was at least one bright light that refused to go out.
Her name was Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921). And in her short, remarkable life, while working as a kind of bookkeeper of the stars at the male-dominated Harvard College Observatory, she made a discovery that allowed astronomers to measure the distance between Earth and distant galaxies.
Vastly important yet little known, Leavitt is the subject of “Silent Sky,” Atlanta native Lauren Gunderson’s luminously beautiful play, now onstage at Theatrical Outfit.
A lovingly crafted period piece that imagines Leavitt’s inner world against the backdrop of World War I, Einstein’s discoveries and the suffragette movement, “Silent Sky” is an intellectual epic told on an intimate scale.
Before Leavitt (Elizabeth Diane Wells) goes to Massachusetts to work as a human “computer,” doing the math for Harvard’s scientists, she must say goodbye to her sister Margaret (Cynthia Barrett), a pianist and composer, and her pastor father (whom we never see). In her new world, she meets the female colleagues who become her second family: Annie Cannon (Carolyn Cook), a stern, buttoned-up task master who will metamorphose into a pants-wearing feminist, and Williamina Fleming (Deadra Moore), a pertly prancing mother hen who speaks in a lilting Scottish brogue.
Moore, who returns to the stage for the first time in 12 years, is absolutely wonderful, while Barrett delivers the most polished performance I’ve witnessed from her in my years of reviewing her work.
The only man in the play is Peter Shaw (Brandon Partrick), a handsome young astronomer who represents Harvard’s male elite and slowly reveals his romantic interest in Leavitt. In a series of quick entrances and exits that highlight Shaw’s status as an effete academic, bumbling fool and poetic dreamer, Partrick finds just the right tone of self-amusement and vulnerability.
“Silent Sky,” which toys with notions of time and space and ends with a flourish that recalls Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” is that rare play that finds the delicate balance between the grave and the comedic. Like the seamstress in Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” Leavitt toils and toils, but things do not end well. And yet, in observing how the stars’ flickering can be measured like music, she triumphs. Wells plays Leavitt as a gentle soul with astonishing tenacity; quietly and with great rigor, she changes the way we view the universe.
As directed by David Crowe, “Silent Sky” is almost pitch-perfect. Set designers Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay conjure the claustrophobia of Leavitt’s family home and her Harvard attic, and the soaring skies beyond. The only false note here is Jenny Giering’s original music, which has the turgid, sentimental sound of a made-for-TV drama.
Gunderson, who grew up in Atlanta, studied at Emory University and now lives in San Francisco, is a powerfully gifted writer who describes the logic of science in language that is lushly poetic. Gunderson has a pocketful of plays that have never been seen in her hometown. I’d like to see that change, and while I’m at it, I’d like to see more of Moore and Partrick, too.
All in all, a very fine moment for Theatrical Outfit, and a proud day for Atlanta theater.