Wednesday, January 31, 2018


Pizzo, Koss, Drexler, as unsung heroines
According to an old Chinese proverb, "Women hold up half the sky." You couldn't dream up a better tagline for the lyrical play, Silent Sky, the new production from the Jewel Theatre Company, in which women at the turn of the last century defy traditional domestic female roles to join the team of astronomers at Harvard in the work of mapping the stars.

It's a tale of unsung heroines finally getting their props, beautifully told in this exhilarating production.

First produced in 2011, Silent Sky was written by prolific American playwright Lauren Gunderson.

She structures her play around real-life astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who had a knack for mathematics and a deep hunger to know the vastness of the world, and the place of humanity within it.

Gunderson charts Henrietta's personal course through sexism and ridicule in an extraordinary age that produced the theories of Einstein and the rise of the suffragist movement, touchpoints conveyed with wit and grace in the JTC production by director Susan Myer Silton.

Women's work: Harvard Observatory "harem" ca 1900
Henrietta (a vivid performance by Michelle Drexler) has just graduated from Radcliffe. (She first appears, goddess-like, floating in a vast sea of stars in the play's breathtaking opening moments.) She accepts an offer from Harvard to work as a "computer" (filing and recording data) at the school's famed observatory.

But her dream job comes with some caveats. The female computers working for observatory director Edward Pickering, called his "harem," are glorified secretaries, cataloging the photographic glass plate images from the telescope they are never allowed to touch.

Real-life Leavitt, Cannon, and Fleming
Working on their own research projects is forbidden, yet Henrietta loves the camaraderie of her colleagues, the at-first daunting, but fiercely supportive Annie Cannon (played with authority by Marcia Pizzo), and droll Scotswoman Williamina Fleming (Diana Torres Koss, in another entertaining turn).

And yet, Henrietta pioneers a theory of star luminosity as a way to measure its distance from Earth and find out how vast the universe really is. (Her work influenced Edwin Hubble, among others.)

All the women scientists in the play are historical personages, so it's a nice touch that the video playing in the lobby features photographs of the real Henrietta, Annie, and Williamina. Check it out while pondering this inspiring story of mapping out a life by charting the stars. (Read more)

(Photo, above, right: Henrietta Leavitt, 3rd from left, Williaming Fleming, standing, and Annie Cannon, far right.)

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