Onstage in a regional premiere at TheatreWorks directed by Meredith McDonough, the play is an eye-opener with appealing performances by four snappy, well-spoken women: Elena Wright as Henrietta; Jennifer Le Blanc as her musical sister Margaret; and, respectively, Sarah Dacey Charles and Lynne Soffer as her colleagues Annie Cannon, a feisty suffragette, and Williamina Fleming, a former housekeeper.
The female scientists do grunt work counting stars (they’re even nicknamed computers who work in a harem) on a project run by the never-seen Dr. Pickering, though his associate Peter Shaw (Matt Citron) checks up on them to make sure they stay on task.
Complicating matters is Peter’s burgeoning passion for Henrietta, which eventually is sort of requited; Henrietta’s departure from Harvard to handle a family crisis at home; and, perhaps most importantly, Henrietta’s pivotal scientific discovery.
Her theory about patterns in stars’ luminosity, which she made on her own, after hours, was more or less lifted by her contemporaries and went on to inform work by the creator of the Hubble telescope.
Sadly, Henrietta’s scientific contributions weren’t rightfully acknowledged until after her lifetime, when (as the first person to “measure the universe”) she was nominated for a Nobel Prize.
The problem with the play is that many of these interesting facts come not naturally as the show progresses, but in a epilogue when Henrietta describes how, after years, she broke into the observatory and at last used the great refractor telescope: “I lean in close and see my heaven. I am out of time, but wonder will always get us there.”
While Gunderson’s dialogue is often engaging and thought-provoking, as when her religious sister tells her, “You asked God a question and he answered. That is the meaning of meaning for most of us,” at points it doesn’t develop the plot. In the end, details about Henrietta’s life on all counts — work, family and romance — are confusing.
Still, “Silent Sky” is a handsome production with sharp, period costumes, a set topped by a dome through which stars sparkle, and gorgeous piano music by Jenny Giering.
While not wholly satisfying, it’s an engaging introduction to a unsung heroine of science.
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 9
Tickets: $19 to $73
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org