Front Row Center – March 2022

Silent Sky

by Lauren Gunderson

Directed by Suki O’Brien

front row

This play is a semi-factual biography of Henrietta Leavitt whose measurements and discoveries revolutionized astronomy at the beginning of the twentieth century. The playwright Lauren Gunderson has also written about other female scientists in history, such as Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie.

It’s an interesting topic, but it lacks dramatic force or conflict. Action centers on the intellectual curiosity of “Henrietta” who is on stage for almost the entire play. Debra Bowers is excellent as the dedicated and quirky woman who is determined to find out the how and why of the universe. Her sister “Margaret” (played by Lynn Gutstadt) stays home and gets married, and from time to time interrupts the dialog with phone calls from Wisconsin.

The scene moves to the Harvard Observatory offices, where Henrietta is employed as a “computer.” This menial task involves measuring and cataloging stars shown on slides from the observatory. She is not allowed anywhere near the telescope, because she is female. Her friends and fellow computers are “Annie Cannon” and “Williamina Fleming” who are both brash and witty. Kathleen Morris plays Annie with plenty of spunk, while Donna Burroughs is a Scottish harridan. The author gives them some amusing lines, but we know little more about them than is necessary to the story of Henrietta.

Next, there is the astronomer “Peter Shaw” who is introduced as a love interest for Henrietta. By the way, this is entirely fictional and I guess Lauren Gunderson thought it would make the play more interesting. Randy Warren does his best with the part, speaking in a gruff monotone as a not-very-convincing suitor.

Finally, we get to the discovery of Leavitt’s Law. Henrietta was excited to be assigned the study of the Cepheids. These are stars with varying brightness with a regular period and she noted that the brighter variables had the longer period. Later, after further research, she published a definitive paper in 1912, showing a mathematical relationship between Cepheid brightness and periodicity. This important discovery gave astronomers a measuring stick, and later enabled Hubble to show that the universe is expanding.

Then the author tidies up the Peter Shaw story line by having him married off while Henrietta is away in Europe. She doesn’t seem too surprised or upset. It’s a sad fact that she died of cancer in 1921 at the age of 53. Though she had to struggle in her early years at the observatory, her contribution to astronomy has been well recognized. In fact Henrietta was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1925, before the Committee discovered that she had died three years earlier.

So this was a story about astronomy rather than a play. Suki O’Brien used some beautiful special effects to convey Henrietta’s awe of the stars. And the staging was clever, with different portions of the stage representing different locations. Deborah Elder was stage manager while Joyce Matchett and Sharon Kinsey were her assistants.

Congratulations to all!

March 2022 Issue

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