Finding out exactly where we are — in work, in love, in life, and in the universe — is one of the most important challenges we face. Early 20th century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt solves the last of these puzzles, but is less successful in locating herself in the worlds of work, life and love, in this marvelously engaging but somewhat pat play by Lauren Gunderson running through March 19 at Eugene’s Oregon Contemporary Theatre.
As our story begins, Henrietta (Inga R. Wilson) has just received word that she’s been accepted for a new job at the Harvard Observatory in Massachusetts. When she tells her sister, Margaret (Erica Towe), of her plans to move from Wisconsin, she comes under the first of many efforts to get her to sacrifice herself and her career for family, for love and for convention. And when she arrives at Harvard, she is unexpectedly greeted by not the grand astronomy professor who had offered her the job, but by his somewhat officious assistant Peter Shaw (Cloud Pemble).
All this sets up a grand, lyric and mostly well told tale, a cosmic love story, if you will, that keeps us glued in our seats despite some emotional misses. Henrietta discovers that she is not be be an astronomer, exactly, but a “computer” — literally, a person who computes data (and we’re talking vast amounts of data) — by measuring images on photographic plates of the night sky shot by the enormous refracting telescope that she, as a woman, is never allowed to use. Along the way she talks and bickers pleasantly with her co-workers, Williamina, played wonderfully by Sharon Sless, and Annie, played with authority by Jen Ferro, and falls briefly in love with the assistant.
Ultimately, it is Henrietta alone who sees and understands deeper patterns in the data that lead her superiors to a huge discovery, literally locating ourselves in this vast universe of stars. All this may be a slight exaggeration of the real life contribution of the actual Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose computational data played a huge part in astronomer Edwin Hubble’s theory of an expanding universe. But the other story lines peter out without much resolution: She and Peter are like ships that pass in the night, and despite her excellent work she never attains the professional recognition she craves.
Directed by Elizabeth Helman, Silent Sky is economically told on a spare but effective set by Steen Mitchell, relying on beautiful projections by Bradley Branam.
Despite its structural weakness, I loved the show, and I think you will, too. Go see it if you can.