When we look at the night sky we see stars. Use a telescope and we see many more. Until the beginning of the 20th century astronomers had no reliable way of determining the distance to any of those pinpoints of light in the celestial sphere and no way of knowing how large or small the universe might be.
In 1893, 25-year-old Henrietta Leavitt began work at Harvard College Observatory, one of several women employed to catalogue stars shown on photographic plates. Having graduated from Radcliffe College, “Harvard in skirts”, according to Henrietta, with a degree encompassing liberal arts, mathematics and astronomy, she wanted to do more. But women were not allowed to use the telescope. That was reserved for men.
After years of this work, with particular attention to stars of varying brightness, Leavitt made a discovery that revolutionized our view of the universe. These stars, known as Cepheid variables, become brighter or dimmer over periods of time measured in days or weeks.
Leavitt realized there was a relationship between this time interval and the changing brightness of these stars that would enable astronomers to determine their distance from earth. Today this is known as Leavitt’s Law.
Chemainus Theatre Festival’s presentation Silent Sky is the story of Henrietta Leavitt, her struggle to undertake the work she aspired to do, and her efforts to strike what today we refer to as life/work balance. Torn between dedication to her chosen profession and the needs of her parents and sister, her dilemma will be familiar to many in today’s workaday world.
The play is by Lauren Gunderson, the most produced living American playwright, and directed by CTF Artistic Director Mark DuMez.
An interesting aspect of the production is the innovative use of projected media as an integral component in the visual presentation. This is the work of Set/Projection Designer T. Erin Gruber, a pioneer in expanding the boundaries of this new melding of traditional theatre and virtual reality on stage.
The four woman, one man cast reflects the division of labour between the sexes in society 100 years ago. Their strained relationship is revealed when the young astronomer Peter Shaw, played by Jay Clift, the women’s liaison with the Chief Astronomer (who never appears), reveals his feelings for Miss Leavitt.
“My heart is beating like a train. And it’s your fault.” Thus, one up-tight scientist to another in a tender moment.
Leavitt’s sister Margaret, played by Andrea Cross; her colleagues Annie, played by CTF regular Luisa Jojic and Williamina, wonderfully portrayed by Anita Wittenberg, are both a trial and her support during her eventful life.
It is truly a delight to see the return of Wittenberg, whose long association with CTF has included so many fine performances over more than twenty years. This is her 14th appearance on the Chemainus stage. Quick, incisive, funny, irreverent, her character rounds out the essential humanity of even these isolated restless intellects.
But it is Emma Slipp, who is outstanding in the character of Henrietta Leavitt, the unsung hero of her time and place. In a role in which she is on stage throughout nearly the entire play, she carries us with her in times of hope and disappointment, triumph and despair.
This is a story of a remarkable human being who overcame the strictures of her time, and whose dogged determination led to a discovery that changed forever our understanding of our place in the universe, a moving and inspiring story.
Silent Sky runs until Saturday, Nov. 4.
Tom Masters is a writer and a resident of Chemainus.