Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Lamb’s “Silent Sky” opens up a universe of worldly pleasures.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt was an impatient woman. She set for her limit the sky and everything that glowed in it as her conquest. Yet at one moment in her life she lamented that all she had was time and ‘all she had not was time’. She died at age 53.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt is one of playwright Lauren Gunderson’s heroines. Gunderson an award wining American playwright is also one of the most produced playwrights these days. Writing mostly about women in science and history, her play “Emile: La Marquis Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight” was recently seen at New Village Arts Theatre again defending women in the world of science.

Rachael VanWormer, Brian Mackey in background
For those who felt the same way about the little known work of women scientists and mathematicians as in the women in the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures”, Ms. Leavitt was a relatively unknown (even in the world of astronomy) American astronomer who devoted herself to the study of Cepheid’s.

For inquiring minds, ‘the period of a star’s brightness cycle to its absolute magnitude… that made it possible for the first time to calculate their distance from earth.’ (American Ass. Of Variable Star Observers)

That she is still an unknown, a footnote in the annals of astronomy and so overlooked that when she was finally ‘recognized for her discovery by the Swedish mathematician Gosta Mittaghat-Feffler that she be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, she had been dead for four years. The Nobel is not awarded posthumously’

Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky” is now in a robust and charming production under the deft direction of producing artistic director Robert Smyth. Smyth, an admirer of Ms. Gunderson, has chosen her play to close out this season. The play runs through May 28th.

It highlights the life and times of this little known petite and determined woman, Henrietta Levitt, who gave up family and romance for the study of  ‘light on high’. She took the astrological world and turned it on its side.

With Rachael VanWormer at the helm as Henrietta Leavitt, she and the other women in her work group, Annie Cannon (Cynthia Gerber) and Williamina Fleming (Deborah Gilmour Smith), were researchers at Harvard’s observatory office.

Their workspace was hidden away in a side room were the women were referred to as computers or ‘Dr. Pickering’s Harem’. Pickering (not seen in the play), the director of The Harvard Observatory fired his male assistant and hired his maid Williamina Fleming who later became an advocate for Henrietta’s work.

Their job was to work with and analyze photographic plates from the telescope (women were not allowed to look through the ‘Great Refractor’) and chart the stars, every point of light in every one.  

Gunderson’s story picks up when Henrietta announces to her sister Margaret (Caitie Grady) that she is taking a job at Harvard at the Observatory. ‘Actual Astronomy’.

Rachael VanWormer and Caitie Grady
Buoyed by the fact that she would be working at Harvard and perhaps even getting to look through the observatory’s telescope, she encountered her first brick wall with Pickering’s apprentice Peter Shaw (Brian Mackey) who sets the rules of the job in no uncertain terms. Convinced that women cannot do the same work as men in their field, he schools her on the other women computers she will be working with.

Later on in the game Shaw, who will become smitten with Henrietta, will try in as many ways possible, mostly in very clumsy attempts, to court her but to no avail. Between her work and the family she left back in Wisconsin, Leavitt was so immersed in her studies that she would often stay after hours and study into the night. 

Brian Mackey, Deborah Gilmour Smyth and Rachael VanWormer
The story goes back and fourth with letters of family travails from Margaret and Henrietta’s immersion in her work. She vacillates between guilt for not helping out with her struggling family and ill father and her obsession for her work. With passions running high and always racing against the clock, all three women form a bond and work together to dig deeper into Leavitt’s findings.

In the meantime Shaw becomes a fixture as his courting skills continue to add to the amusement as he stammers in embarrassment trying to get a word or two out to let her know his feelings. And when all is said and done, it’s too late.

Smyth’s all –star cast makes this production worthy of a look-see. Deborah Gilmour Smyth is a hoot as the Scottish Fleming, never missing a beat with her accent and busy gestures that add a bit of humor to a pretty intense production.  

Cynthia Gerber’s Annie Cannon comes on strong and no nonsense but turns out to be a woman suffragette actually wearing pants that Henrietta’s sister Margaret warned her about long before women wore them.

Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Cynthia Gerber and Rachael VanWormer
Caitie Grady’s Margaret is persuasive and sincere as she pleads for her sister to come home and see their ailing father and her growing family. Grady, as Margaret who always wanted to be involved in music, plays a symphony she has written that becomes a memorable moment for Henrietta as it is at that instant that discovers the answers to her research project.

Mackey’s Shaw is as charming as he is awkward as he tries to court Leavitt even at times contradicting her work knowing that her theories are more convincing than his.

 Bravo to Ms. VanWormer for the maturity seen in her ever -changing role of Henrietta Leavitt noted astronomer to world traveler (“I’ve heard that seeing the stars from the sea is not to be missed.”) to women’s advocate in both the workplace and in her field of science.  

Her arc from effervescent novice star- gazer to self assured and experienced fighter, handicap and all (she suffered from hearing loss and wore aids to help her hear) brought tears to my eyes at plays end as she fills the gaps from her own death to her associates death’s to the Hubble Telescope and her findings in the galaxy to her nomination for the Nobel Prize to harnessing the atom to orbiting the earth.


Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Rachael VanWormer and Cynthia Gerber
“Why”, one has to ask, “do the good die young?” 

Production values also run high with Sean Fanning’s awesome dome framed high above the stage and resembling a dome in any planetarium, enhanced by Michael McKeon’s projections of stars, the milky way and further enhanced by Nathan Pierson’ lighting design. Jemima Dutra’s costume designs also change with the times from the 1900’s to 1920.  Deborah Gilmour Smyth wrote the original music and designed the sound.


Overall in these times of uncertainty, misogyny and sex discrimination it’s encouraging to discover that there were and still are women out there willing to go the limit and fight for what they know is possible (think the Women’s March on Washington) even when there are those who try to shut them up. 


See you at the theatre.


Dates: Through May 28th
Organization: Lamb’s Players Theatre
Phone: 619.437.6000
Production Type: Drama
Where: 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado, CA 92117
Ticket Prices: Start at $24.00
Web: lambsplayers.org

Photo: Ken Jacques

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