“I need to know,” cries star-obsessed Henrietta Leavitt (a radiantly flinty Shannon Emerick) as she’s surrounded by crisp projections of the blazing heavens. What is it we really see in the vast firmament? Where do we fit in among the countless points of light overhead? What does it all mean? There has to be a larger truth, and Leavitt wants to know; she needs to know.
In Silent Sky, Lauren Gunderson’s fanciful but inspiring bio of this unsung early 20th century astronomer, produced in a stirring production in Main Street Theater’s newly renovated facility, Leavitt’s unflinching curiosity and uncanny ability to see patterns where no one had before led her to a discovery which would give unimagined complexity and scope to that immense unknowable space above us. Knotty astronomical concepts like Magellanic variables, the Cepheid yardstick, standard candles, and period-luminosity relationship are softly sprinkled through the play and made friendly for a lay audience. We’re as intrigued as was Leavitt by the big out-there.
For all the brilliance and importance of her findings that led directly to calculating distances in deep space, the historical Leavitt is a cipher. There are her ledger books that contain dry computations as she toiled for the esteemed Pickering at Harvard College Observatory; a few extant letters she wrote to him while at her parents’ home; we know she sailed to Europe in 1903 but not where she visited nor why; we have her Radcliffe transcripts. Contemporaneously, she was mentioned in the Washington Post for her ability to discover significant stars, comparing her to Broadway impresario Frohman and his uncanny ability to make stars, but she left no diaries or personal correspondence out of which to construct a life, or a play. There are two or three short biographies that shed no more light on her personal life than the lone obituary tribute by a former colleague. Unmarried, partially deaf, and later, during her most productive period, ravaged by cancer, she lived to work.
In the manner of those ubiquitous Hollywood bio-pix during the golden age — Pasteur, Zola, Edison, De Lesseps, Curie, Juarez, Queen Christina — Gunderson fashions an A-list, apocryphal story, weaving Leavitt through the proto-feminist era of bloomers, suffragettes, and nascent stirrings of equality. Gunderson spices the tale with a failed romance with Pickering’s young assistant Peter Shaw (James Monaghan, using equal measures of shyness and bluster in his sympathetic portrait), while letting tart humor slide in and out with her female “computer” colleagues, stern Annie Cannon (a lively, prickly Elizabeth Marshall Black) and matronly-wise Williamina Fleming (Claire Hart-Palumbo, with plenty of comic warmth). Interspersed with lab work and budding romance, Leavitt’s single-minded focus is contrasted with family, as beloved sister Margaret (a gentle, smart Jennifer Dean) can’t comprehend what’s so important in this work that Henrietta can blithely neglect home obligations. Does Henrietta realize Margaret’s an accomplished composer, that father is dying, that she is now a mom? Years fly by, intercut with Annie’s civil protests, Peter’s rebound marriage, and Henrietta’s constant research. There’s a pattern out there, Henrietta vows, there must be!
The women bond through the grunt work they’re required to do, day in, year out. Their task, unrelenting, is nothing less than to map every star in the sky. They are “ladies of the log book,” scouring the male astronomers’ photographic plates to pinpoint the fuzzy black dots for luminosity and position. Hunched at their desks, they measure, calculate, and notate, all for the astronomical sum of 25 cents an hour. The men of science, naturally, are too busy at the observatory’s “great refractor” to be bothered with such menial labor. This is woman’s work. That these indentured servants were brilliant and accomplished meant nothing. Cannon had already devised a classification system for stellar brightness — still in use today — and Fleming, who was one of the first of Pickering’s “harem,” though originally hired as his housekeeper, will distinguish herself in later years as curator of the observatory. It was the men, though, who had all the fun and took the credit. The computer girls recorded the data, but the scientists made sense out of them. Henrietta Leavitt changed that format.
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Emerick lifts Henrietta’s selfless determination to starry levels. She’s on a mission. She may be only an infinitesimal part of the great picture, but she’s going to be the best part of it she can. If all she’s allowed to do in this man’s world is observe and take notes, then she will become a “star-finding fiend,” as one appreciative colleague applauded. Emerick gloriously, easily, lets us see the personal toll it took and the daunting independence it required. Blessed with unquenchable curiosity and innate intelligence — both defining traits of this complete actor, also — Emerick drills into Leavitt’s grit, fortitude, and unmatched perseverance. It’s there in her stance (those tweed hobble skirts by costumer Margaret Crowley say volumes), a pursed mouth, a knowing glint in her eye, or a piercing, pleading glance into the heavens. Looking up, she’s transfixed by what’s unknowable. The answers are out there. We can see the searching in Emerick’s luminous upturned face.
With a complete redo of its stage, Main Street asks us to “look up,” too. Those horrid, view-blocking columns are no more; and the theater sweeps open to the rafters. Whether the two-story space will consume sound is untested, but there’s more reverb than I remember and some unwarranted muffling when actor’s backs are turned from us. A brand new space takes time for everyone to adjust, and whatever problems are encountered may be solved with attention to diction and projection. We’ll see. Right now, however, the space is glorious, and Liz Freese’s set design, with Peter Ton’s elegant high-def projections and Eric Marsh’s tony lighting, fits snugly inside. Director Rebecca Greene Udden overlays Gunderson’s history lesson with a warm flowing glow, like music of the spheres. She makes her points and moves on, without fuss or overstatement, letting Gunderson speak with clear voice.
“Send more sky,” Henrietta pleads to unseen Pickering when she sickens at Margaret’s home and must work to keep sane and involved with the world. The stars are her friends. Where they fit into the greater scheme is her joy. As she says, it’s a problem to be solved; a pattern, not a revolution. Leavitt, with quiet momentum, something like her own force of gravity, answered one of the grandest questions of the universe: how big are we? Known in her lifetime but never fully recognized for the depth of her findings, she was posthumously honored by having a crater on the moon named after her. It wasn’t enough then, and it’s not enough now. Gunderson’s fine drama may propel more complete recognition. Then again, as Main Street celebrates so thoroughly, who really knows: it’s all in the stars.
November 29 December 6. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheatre.com. $36-$39.