TAMPA — The work of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt changed the way scientists looked at the night sky. Despite conditions that can only be described as sexist, Leavitt eventually earned recognition for her discoveries, upon which Edwin Hubble and others built to prove the existence of other galaxies.
A recent play, Silent Sky, celebrates Leavitt's life and work against a backdrop of limited roles for women. The play by Lauren Gunderson makes its Florida premiere at Tampa Repertory Theatre. Like most of the theater's productions, this one directed by Connie LaMarca-Frankel explores meaningful territory in a serious way. This is not fluff.
At the same time, its slow pace can try patience. Actors recite paragraphs of prose, sometimes directly to the audience, the stage equivalent of a voiceover. Their messages are worth hearing, but the show feels excruciatingly longer than its two hours and an intermission. Some of that might result from Tampa Repertory's existential situation, heroically managing to put out several shows a year on a slim budget.
Some of that slowness also stems from the acting, and some of it is the play.
That said, the show engagingly frames scientific discoveries as part of an evolving period, especially the first 20 years of the 20th century. Gunderson's script smartly juxtaposes astronomy with other reflections of how we saw the world, ongoing tensions between science and religion, and the ways in which time and space and distance affect relationships.
One performance hums along at a consistently professional level. Fortunately, that is the role of Leavitt played by Emilia Sargent. She uncovers the layers of a cerebral character who struggles with illness (Leavitt died at 53 of cancer) and the expectations of her family, yet is too preoccupied by her study of the stars to give in to either.
Her romantic counterpart, Peter Shaw (Derrick Phillips), vacillates between attraction and his own societal baggage as an underling to Edward Pickering, who headed the research project. It is a nerd romance, quick to develop but never really acted upon, with lots of pacing around the stage and sentimental or angry moments characters declare more than they demonstrate.
So, too, go the contributions of Caroline Jett as Annie Cannon, Leavitt's immediate supervisor; Lynn Locher as her cheery Scottish colleague, Williamina Fleming; and Karissa Barber as Margaret Leavitt, Henrietta's sister. These are wholesome characters, incredibly so at first, yet they become a little more tolerable over time. Whether they are portraying realistic people who feel things in nuanced ways — or were even given those opportunities in the script — or are going for the subtlety of repressed brainiacs is open for debate.
But the fact that watching them makes you ask that question is problematic.
Nonetheless, they come through at key times, such as in Cannon's quiet encouragement or Shaw's eventual warmth and willingness to admit a mistake.
Leavitt does find a measure of justice and respect for her star-mapping breakthroughs. The observatory gave her a permanent position, with a modest raise. Four years after her death, a famous Swedish mathematician tried to nominate her for the Nobel Prize (which is not awarded posthumously). After a lifetime of defying expectations to be a wife and mother, she was grateful for the acknowledgment.
Technical glitches delayed the opening night performance a few minutes, then straightened out. A planetarium motif in lighting design by Jo Averill-Snell across a mostly bare stage is heavy-handed but effective.
It's a shame only 15 or so people were there to see it. While the show is far from perfect, it is at least about something and intellectually interesting. It raises issues capable of staying in the mind long after curtain, and that is a good thing.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.