There are several moments in Silent Sky that so deeply capture our nation's current zeitgeist that you might wonder if Lauren Gunderson is clairvoyant. That, or maybe she wrote the play mere days before WaterTower Theatre's stirring, beautiful production. Obviously the answer is neither, but the 2011 play about women fighting for their right to be heard, respected, and treated equally is still frighteningly topical.
Much like the recently Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, Silent Sky reveals a lesser-known story about the women who were the real brains behind a groundbreaking moment in scientific history. Only here, the setting is turn-of-the-century Harvard, where Henrietta Leavitt (a radiant Anastasia Munoz) has come to plot the stars after leaving Radcliffe and her Wisconsin farm upbringing.
Leavitt joins "Pickering's Harem," a group of fantastically intelligent women who do the grunt work and record-keeping while the famous astronomer Dr. Edward Charles Pickering gets to lecture and look through the telescope. Though it's acknowledged by Pickering's assistant that women do a much better job than men with the delicate glass plates and meticulous equations, that's about the only time you get to hear males praising females for their minds. Until Leavitt makes a discovery that changes scientific history.
Gunderson takes care to show that the logarithm Leavitt develops — which measures the distance between earth and other galaxies, and is eventually used by Edwin Hubble to prove that the universe is expanding — isn't a fluke. Leavitt works feverishly for years, eschewing romance, family, and sleep while continually fighting rampant sexism among her "colleagues."
Aside from Pickering's assistant, played with endearing awkwardness by Mitchell Stephens, we never see the men who continually use Leavitt's hard work as their stepping stone. Instead we meet her fellow "computers," women who would go on to claim their own important spots in scientific history but here are fully drawn as bright, funny, fascinating trailblazers.
Shannon J. McGrainn gets all the best lines (delivered in a Scottish brogue) as the feisty Williamina Fleming, who began as Pickering's housekeeper before building the department in which Leavitt flourishes. Marianne Galloway gives Annie Cannon a flinty armor that reinforces how women often must suppress their femininity in order to be taken seriously, but relaxes when she finds a secondary calling as a trousers-wearing, protest-marching suffragette.
And though it could have been easier to define Leavitt's sister Margaret (Sarah Elizabeth Price) as the prototypical early 20th-century housewife, obsessed with marriage and babies and begging her wild sister to act more like a lady, Gunderson highlights her passion for music and determined ambition that clearly runs in the Leavitt family.
Kelsey Leigh Ervi directs with a deft and empathetic hand, driving home the frightening similarities between the 1900s and now while never sacrificing the inspiring tone of the play. On Clare Floyd DeVries' swirling set, lit with all the colors of the galaxy by Leann Burns, the cast cycles in and out with precision.
Perhaps what gives this production an extra push is the sheer joy Munoz brings to her role — you might find yourself getting really excited about the luminosity–period relation for Cepheids too — while elegantly personifying the daily struggles of a "modern woman." And lately it's become shockingly clear what modern women still must fight for today.
WaterTower Theatre's production of Silent Sky runs through February 12.