In the first scene of Lauren Gunderson’s play "Silent Sky," a feisty young woman announces, "I have questions, I have fundamental problems with the state of human knowledge. Who are we, why are we – where are we?" Her zeal to answer these enormous questions and her fascination with the stars sets the story, which is loosely based on the life of the early twentieth century mathematician and astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, in motion.
As "Henri," well-known Milwaukee actress Deborah Staples fiercely leads Next Act audiences on her journey of discovery, which begins in an office at the Harvard Observatory where she analyzes glass photo plates of the starry night sky. And like the Cepheids – pulsating stars that her character studies extensively – Staples’s light shines very brightly in each scene, conveying the almost fiendish determination that Leavitt possesses in search of an important discovery that will help make sense of the universe.
Staples is joined in her tedious but important celestial analysis by two other women — referred to as the professor’s "harem." Williamina Fleming (a sassy Kelly Doherty with a delightful Scottish brogue and exquisite comic timing) has a piercing wit and mind to match. Formerly the professor’s housekeeper, Fleming is not only a gifted researcher, she is the good-natured foil for Annie Jump Cannon, another under-appreciated astronomer who has also been relegated to data collection. Played with brusque, bristly charm by a stern Carrie Hitchcock, it’s no surprise that the uncompromising Cannon spends the second act marching for women’s suffrage and handing out pamphlets.
Back in Wisconsin, Henri’s much more conventional sister Margaret (portrayed with great affection by Karen Estrada) is the personification of home, family obligation and the girls’ religious upbringing – one that occasionally collides with the science of astronomy. Margaret’s letters are a frequent intrusion in the work room at Harvard, delivered urgently by Estrada in an effort to wrestle Henri away from her meticulous recording tasks and back to the important people in her life.
The question "where are we" is particularly apt in the play, because Leavitt follows an obviously unconventional path for a woman in the early 1900s. She must constantly decide where she will go (home to be with family, to Boston to continue her research or on adventures with the adorably awkward fellow scientist Peter Shaw) and which of her passions to gravitate towards (astronomy or love for her colleague, played with stumbling honesty by Reese Madigan). It also speaks to the bigger question that Leavitt’s research eventually helped answer: how our galaxy fits into the universe, and how vast the heavens really are.
Very little is known about Leavitt’s life outside of her research, which is great news for Gunderson. It gives her a lot of latitude to imagine Leavitt’s internal conflicts and the constellation of relationships she has with family, friends, colleagues and the male-dominated scientific community. And like the 2016 movie "Hidden Figures," about the black women working as mathematical computers for NASA in the 1960s, "Silent Sky" clearly depicts a time when the deck was stacked against female scientists, but by refusing to hide their intellect, they prevailed.
Though these struggles were real, the plot of "Silent Sky" frequently feels like well-traveled ground. Leavitt’s relentless spunk in the face of predictable obstacles makes her character feel less real, and the fact that her tenuous (completely fictional) romance with Shaw dominates the first act seems disrespectful to the woman who, in the estimation of famed astronomer Edwin Hubble, deserved a Nobel Prize for her work.
Fortunately the stellar cast, astutely directed by Next Act Artistic Director David Cecsarini, elevates the material. Provided with deep, emotional connections between these characters, the audience can celebrate Leavitt’s actual accomplishments and her imagined life – which, like a supernova, burned very brightly for a short time, leaving an indelible legacy.