Lauren Gunderson’s 2011 play Silent Sky is about succeeding and failing, seeking and discovering, journeying and arriving. That is to say, it’s the story of a life — the life of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt. Silent Sky, directed by Elizabeth Helman, is playing now at Oregon Contemporary Theatre.
Working at Harvard at the turn of the 20th century, Leavitt made significant discoveries leading to the development of the Hubble Telescope.
At the time there weren’t many women working in the sciences, and Silent Sky pitches Leavitt as an unheralded feminist pioneer. The women working at Harvard are referred to as a “harem.” Only men are allowed to use the telescope.
This is an important tale to tell, but it’s far from the play’s most interesting storyline. Instead, Silent Sky’s most vital moments come when playwright Lauren Gunderson contemplates life’s big mysteries, such as: How can two sisters gaze at the heavens, as Leavitt and her sister Margaret do early in the play, one seeing answers while the other sees only questions?
Also, how can we know so much about our universe and still not understand what puts two human souls in orbit with one another? Leavitt and her Harvard colleague Peter Shaw experience this phenomenon as romance blossoms between them.
OCT’s production, designed beautifully by Steen V. Mitchell, places the external next to the internal, mixing projected stars alongside handwritten text.
Leavitt, portrayed by Inga R. Wilson, embodies the young century’s seemingly endless opportunities, combining intrepid intelligence with Mae West’s sauciness.
The romance between Leavitt and Shaw (played with charming affability by Cloud Pemble) has a Jimmy Stewart-Katharine Hepburn chemistry. Shaw makes rounds, checking on the women in the lab. “I come around,” he says, awkwardly explaining his role. It works, and you root for the young couple, even when things turn rocky.
Silent Sky’s supporting cast is strong top to bottom. Leavitt’s sister Margaret (played with Midwestern sincerity by Erica Towe) balances Henrietta’s intellectual curiosity with a steadfast faith that not everything in life can, or needs to be, explained by science.
Leavitt’s labmates at Harvard, Annie and Williamina, frequently steal the show. Williamina (Sharon Sless) is a sharp-tongued, wizened old Scot, and Annie (Jen Ferro) is a battleship plowing the waters of 19th-century gender politics.
This pair of women gets the play’s funniest moments, and the laughs are well earned. The camaraderie that develops among Leavitt, Annie and Williamina as they work alongside one another in the lab is pitch-perfect and a highlight of the show.
In a somewhat rushed last act — similar to the way history accelerated with women’s suffrage, war and the floodgates of science thrown open ever wider — we see our cast at its most personal. As is often the case, each character learns that, sometimes, you have to travel outward in order to turn inward.
At several points Leavitt ponders: Exactly where are we? The answer comes, as it often does when we face mortality: Exactly where we’ve always been, and sometimes that’s good enough.
Silent Sky runs through March 19 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre; tickets and info at octeatre.org or 465-1506.