At the First Folio Theatre
by Dan Zeff
Oak Brook—Unless you are an astronomer or an astronomy buff, you likely have never heard of Henrietta Swan Leavitt. She was an American woman who made discoveries during the early 1900’s that helped later scientists establish the present scale of the universe.
Leavitt’s story attracted the interest of playwright Lauren Gunderson, who wrote “Silent Sky,” a biographical drama that the First Folio Theatre is staging in one of the more entertaining and informative productions of the season. And when the Jeff awards are passed out at the end of the season Cassandra Bissell’s Henrietta should be in the conversation.
Leavitt was born in 1868 and lived most of her life in New England (she died in 1921 at the age of 53). In 1892, Leavitt received a bachelor’s degree from what is now Radcliffe College. She joined the Harvard College Observatory in 1902 and spent her entire career there. Leavitt had the misfortune of being a woman when science, including astronomy, was a man’s world. At Harvard she was delegated the job of measuring and cataloguing the brightness of stars photographed by telescope onto glass plates. It was slogging work compared to the exciting researches the male scientists reserved for themselves.
Photo Credit: D. Rice
In an era when women were expected to be docile helpmates to the menfolk, Henrietta stood her ground. She did not suffer fools gladly and yet she was not a fiery protester like her suffragette Harvard workmate Annie Cannon. Henrietta wasn’t interested in marriage at a time when that’s what a woman’s primary goal should be. Bissell’s Henrietta tried to fit in, but her dogged search for knowledge came first.
In the play, Leavitt is a high-spirited young woman with a passion for scientific inquiry and a resentment toward the sexist limitations imposed on her scholarly freedom. Eventually her brilliance, her limitless work ethic, and her fierce drive for scientific discovery gained her some of the recognition she deserved. Leavitt now stands as a pioneer in the modern mapping of the universe, dismantling the scientific conviction of the time that the cosmos did not extend beyond our own Milky Way. With Leavitt’s discoveries, the sky literally had no limit.
Gunderson deals with this gigantic theme by writing a small play. There are only five characters. Other than Leavitt, there are the woman’s two colleagues working on the measuring and cataloguing project—Williamina Fleming (Belinda Bremner) and Annie Jump Cannon (Jeannie Affelder), Henrietta’s sister Margaret (Hayley Rice), a her male supervisor and off and on romantic interest at Harvard, Peter Shaw (Wardell Julius Clark).
Photo Credit: D. Rice
There are two subplots, neither contributing much to the core of the drama. Henrietta is emotionally tied to her home, especially her clergyman father and her sister. Margaret is a pleasant but strait laced woman who can’t understand why Henrietta dismisses the call of marriage for arcane problems of astronomy that seem to have no relation to everyday life. In the other subplot, a meandering romance develops between Henrietta and Peter Shaw that goes nowhere.
Henrietta’s big boss is the famous astronomer Edward Charles Pickering. He is mentioned often but never seen and apparently was instrumental in thwarting Henrietta’s early attempts to expand her work on the cosmos project (she wasn’t even allowed to use the college telescope). Some on-stage confrontational dialogue exchanges between Henrietta and Pickering would have injected stimulating debate about gender inequality and scientific inquiry in the early 20th century American scientific community. The playwright’s portrait of the feisty and sarcastic Williamina Fleming suggests that Gunderson was capable of this kind of crackling verbal exchange.
These quibbles aside, in less than two hours of playing time Gunderson sustains our interest in Henrietta’s scientific labors as well as her personal life, avoiding melodrama or sentimentality. Henrietta’s discoveries are very high tech and Gunderson wisely avoids getting bogged down in abstruse scientific explanations.
Director Melanie Keller has directed the production for what it should be, an intimately scaled story of one woman’s drive against the unjust impediments placed in her path by the society of the day. There are no false notes in the performances and plenty of humor to leaven the narrative’s rising intensity.
The basic playing area is an empty space with a few basic props to indicate specific settings. The designers do succeed in creating a sense of time and place through Angela Weber Miller’s scenic design, Rachel Lambert’s costumes, Scott Leaton’s properties, Michael McNamara’s lighting, John Medina’s projections, and Christopher Kriz’s understated sound and original music.
It’s no small thing to write an entertaining play on a difficult and unfamiliar scientific subject but Gunderson has largely pulled it off. Bissell carries the play with truth and intelligence as well as charm and warmth. In its quiet command of a complex character, her performance hasn’t been topped by any other actress I’ve seen this season. The performance earns the ultimate compliment. The viewer can’t imagine the role being played any other way. And the final visual moment of the production choked me up.
“Silent Sky” runs April 30 at the First Folio Theatre at the
Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 West 31st Street. Performances are Wednesday and Friday at 8 p.m., Thursday and Sunday at 3 p.m., and Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $26 to $39. Call
630 986 8067 or visit www.firstfolio.org .
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars. April2017
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