Curious Women are the Stars of ‘Silent Sky’ at Lamb’s Players
These “human computers” were mapping the cosmos seventy years before NASA’s Hidden Figures
Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Cynthia Gerber, and Rachael VanWormer. | Photo: Ken Jacques
It’s telling that the most ready synonym for “curious” is “odd,” and that the word is usually applied to disaster-prone cats and precocious children. Graduating gives us an official recognition that we’ve “learned enough” in a breadth of fields, but how often do we revisit subjects beyond whatever’s paying the bills? Knowledge rots without an abiding curiosity, and over time, that little bit we picked up in our halcyon days can actually start resisting new information. “What do you mean Pluto’s not a planet? I learned that it was a long time ago!” “What do you mean Hubble’s discovery of other galaxies was based on research done by a woman half a century earlier? My textbook didn’t mention that!”
Despite what some of our teachers would have us believe, the history of women in science does not begin and end with Marie Curie, and those who’ve been deliberately marginalized from the Official Record are finally getting their due thanks to playwrights like Lauren Gunderson, whose Silent Sky sheds light on the Harvard Computers, a team of women who—much like those seen in last year’s film Hidden Figures—were tasked with performing endless, painstaking calculations in the years before automation.
Harvard Observatory’s chief concern in the 1880s and 90s was photographing and cataloguing every single star in the sky. After its director griped that his maid could do a better job than his male assistants, he actually hired her, and more women followed. Deborah Gilmour Smyth plays that former maid, Williamina Fleming, with an impish mischievousness, perfectly paired with Cynthia Gerber as no-nonsense Annie Jump Cannon.
Rachael VanWormer and Caitie Grady. | Photo: Ken Jacques
Both of these women made significant contributions to modern astronomy, but the brightest star (sorry) of the computers is newcomer Henrietta Leavitt (Rachel VanWormer), who is full to bursting with exuberance for the night sky from the moment she appears onstage. She’s cataloguing a group of variable stars, driven by a ravenous curiosity to find the relationship between their frequency and brightness—the missing piece needed to measure their distance from Earth. Her discovery would enable Edwin Hubble to receive most of the credit for confirming that other galaxies lie beyond our own. VanWormer’s performance is intense. On a scale of 1 to 10, her energy seldom dips below an 8, which is thrilling when inviting us to marvel with her at the wonders of the universe, but can be exhausting in the downtime between epiphanies.
The play’s lone male character is Peter Shaw (Brian Mackey), a fictional assistant to the unseen director. He’s a tower of fidgeting eggshells barely holding it together surrounded by smarter, more qualified women. Director Robert Smyth surely recognized that audiences who show up for female empowerment are also on their guard for lazy tropes like inevitable workplace-proximity romance: Mackey keeps his bashful unease tipped just the right side of endearing, making his character’s brief relationship with Leavitt more believable; a welcome detour that also gives VanWormer a more dynamic space to react in.
Director Robert Smyth surely recognized that audiences who show up for female empowerment are also on their guard for lazy tropes like inevitable workplace-proximity romance.
The play creatively weaves real-time conversations out of correspondence that took months: While keeping her attention on the minuscule details of her work, Henrietta speaks with her sister Margaret (Caitie Gready) back in Wisconsin, offering one excuse after the next for not writing, not visiting, and entirely forgetting important family events. Margaret’s chief function here is to be hurt by her sister’s distance, which is just fine, since Gready’s subtle, plaintive performance might be the most affecting of the show.
In devoting so much of its runtime to the family sacrifices Leavitt makes for her career, the play can’t help but further the old canard that women must neglect one to succeed in the other. Historically accurate as this might be, I can’t help wishing it were presented (and that society as a whole would consider it) as less of a binary choice, especially when the two become conflated in a professional betrayal that’s oddly resolved through an unrelated personal matter.
Costume designer Jemima Dutra deserves special mention for a sly metaphor: Just as blue stars burn hotter but shorter and red stars longer but cooler, energetic young Leavitt wears vivid blues and the characters who would slow her down are in deep reds, but the former dim and the latter brighten as time goes on, illustrating the influence their personalities have had on one another.
What smaller nitpicks I have are greatly outweighed by my enthusiasm for this story’s telling in the first place. It doesn’t bring any fresh takes to your standard biographical form, but remains remarkable for its choice of subject. By balancing heady concepts with charm, heartbreak, and humor, Silent Sky broadens our idea of what a groundbreaking scientist can look like, in a fascinating paean to the power of curiosity.
Lamb’s Players Theatre
Through May 28