The universe was a smaller place before Henrietta Swan Leavitt.
The largely forgotten astronomer, who died in 1921, was key to discovering the size of the cosmos and paving the way for better-known scientists such as Edwin Hubble. She did this in spite of the misogyny of the time — women weren’t allowed to use telescopes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — working for men who at first shunned her theories, and dealing with illnesses, one of which made her partially deaf and another that took her life.
Henrietta is the central figure in Edmonds Driftwood Players’ upcoming production of “Silent Sky” by Lauren Gunderson. The play, staging Feb. 8-24 at the Wade James Theater, also highlights other women who worked alongside Henrietta and how she balanced her family obligations and a romantic interest with her groundbreaking work.
“I’m fascinated by untold stories,” said director Eric Bischoff. “This is one of those.”
The story spans the first two decades of the 20th century, beginning when Henrietta, played by Marena Kleinpeter, is assigned to study variable stars at the Harvard College Observatory and determine their distance from Earth.
Henrietta tells fellow assistant, Peter Shaw (Dan Ruiz Salvatura), of her frustration over not being allowed to use the observatory’s refracting telescope. She cites her education at prestigious Radcliffe College in Massachusetts, considered the female counterpart for the all-male Harvard College.
But despite her determination and rebellious nature, Henrietta is treated as a “human computer” and must painstakingly sift through astronomical data in a lab, knowing the discoveries of which will be claimed by men.
“She has all this bottled-up ambition,” Kleinpeter said. “She has to do everything secondhand, without that access she goes in thinking she was going to have.”
Her female colleagues, who understand her frustrations, include the strong-willed Annie Jump Cannon (Ingrid Buron) and boisterous Williamina Fleming (Elizabeth A. Shipman). They not only encourage Henrietta to pursue her own ideas, but see her as a beacon of hope for women.
“Annie tells Henrietta that she sees her as a light to new knowledge,” Bischoff said. “It’s a journey through a restricted culture and a more open understanding.”
A few things throw her work off balance: a blossoming relationship with Peter, obligations to her dying father and a tense relationship with her sister, Margaret (Annie St. John).
Ultimately, though, Henrietta finds a way to turn astronomy on its head and lead future astronomers to new understandings about the cosmos (Edwin Hubble discovered the universe is expanding by using her formula for studying the distance to stars in the 1920s) before dying from cancer at age 53.
“The play is about Henrietta’s journey to find out where we are in the universe,” Bischoff said.
Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.
If you go
Edmonds Driftwood Players’ production of “Silent Sky” by Lauren Gunderson stages Feb. 8-24 at the Wade James Theater, 950 Main St., Edmonds.
Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $28 or $25 for seniors, youth and military.
Call 425-774-9600. More at www.edmondsdriftwoodplayers.org.