The play opens when Henrietta is offered a job at Harvard working for Edward Charles Pickering as one of the human computers, all of whom were women (see also the movie Hidden Figures, another example of the "harem effect" in science). She leaves her beloved sister to do this work that became her life, sometimes to the detriment of her relationship with the family she left behind. Along with her fellow computers she documented and classified the stars. But she wanted more, and the discovery of a pattern lead her to her great discovery that the distance to each star can be calculated (how do you measure a year? measure in light). The play also includes an obligatory but sweet romance with her colleague, but in the end, her work is what fulfilled her, and what she's remembered for.*
|documenting the stars (Amber Bjork, Victoria Pyan, and|
Sarah Broude, photo by Charles Gorrill)
Theatre Pro Rata's Artistic Director Carin Bratlie Wethern directs the strong five-person cast and makes great use of the planetarium space; most of the action takes place in the space at the front of the domed auditorium, with some use of the aisles as well. On the dome is projected both landscapes (the family farm, the Harvard campus) and stars, as well as a beautiful array of changing light (note to my fellow motion sickness sufferers, you might need to close your eyes when the stars start spinning, or they'll never stop spinning). The period costumes are made of fabrics that subtly shimmer in the changing light, as if the stars are all around us. (Lighting design by Julia Carlis, fulldome photography by Dome3D Immersive Media Solutions, costume design by Samantha Kuhn Staneart.)
|Victoria Pyan as Henrietta|
(photo by Charles Gorrill)
I've always felt that science and religion are flip sides of the same coin, an idea the play also explores in Henri's relationship with her (unseen) minister father and church-going sister. Both women have deeply held beliefs, one in science, one in religion. But maybe their beliefs aren't that different; both are a search for truth and an attempt to know the unknowable.*
Silent Sky runs only two more weekends, Fridays through Sundays. The museum is not open during the evening performances, but if you go to the Sunday performance you could arrive early to visit the museum (admission not included with ticket purchase). It's a wonderfully immersive theatrical experience that literally allows us to star-gaze along with Henrietta, a woman to whom we owe much of our understanding of them. Truly magical.
*Some text borrowed from what I wrote about Lyric Arts' production a few years ago.