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It was Sir Isaac Newton who opined in 1675, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” “The Women Who Mapped the Stars” smashes that human pyramid, bringing 20th-century astronomer Cecilia Payne right into the midst of her immediate predecessors.
These were the female “computers” who, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, were tasked with painstakingly classifying celestial data at the Harvard College Observatory, then handing over their discoveries to the science guys who wouldn’t let them touch a telescope.
In its world premiere by Nora Theatre Company (at Central Square Theater through May 20), Joyce Van Dyke’s magisterial yet homey paean to a quintet of women who made significant discoveries rather than making coffee is the inaugural offering of The Brit d’Arbeloff Women in Science Production Series and a Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT production. A commissioned work, the play sometimes seems bent more on scientific impartation and setting the feminist record straight than on human drama. But the piece, with one eye on distaff history and the other on the heavens, gathers strength, warmth and layers as it goes along.
Despite its scientific and feminist agendas, “The Women Who Mapped the Stars” is not without mystery. The play (which covers some of the same ground as Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky”) opens on the pointedly starless night in 1879 when future astronomer Williamina Fleming’s husband disappeared. Left pregnant and alone, the Scottish immigrant went to work as a maid for Edward Charles Pickering, who happened to be director of the Harvard College Observatory. And soon she found herself administrating a cadre of women plowing through the reams of photographic data collected by the men manning those off-limits telescopes.
But while Fleming is still standing in the yard — as she not so subtly puts it, “alone in the universe” — the play leaps ahead to 1923. On a platform backed by the firmament, a young, eager and impassioned Payne appears, clutching a photograph of Fleming and bent on becoming an astronomer. This quest will take her, too, from her roots in the United Kingdom to Harvard, where in 1956 she will become a tenured professor and chair of the astronomy department.
But first, in Van Dyke’s fancy, Payne will gradually worm her way into the domain of the corseted “computers” who preceded and inspired her. These include, in addition to Fleming, later-lauded astronomers Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon and Antonia Maury. Magically dropped into their midst, Payne will become their “dream”: a female scientist of the future, who men will have no choice but to credit.
Ironically, on her way to that happy end, Payne too will find herself co-opted — by the eminent astronomer Henry Norris Russell, who praises her doctoral thesis but pooh-poohs her finding that the stars are comprised primarily of hydrogen. (Four years later, he claimed the discovery as his own.) Here, however, that’s just one of many glitches on the way to the play’s inspirational, sororal conclusion.
As you may have gathered, “The Women Who Mapped the Stars” is jam-packed with the dense scientific detections of its distaff stargazers. You will learn a lot about astronomy, astrophysics, stellar spectra and Magellanic Clouds. But though Van Dyke is riding a mission here, this is not her first dramaturgical rodeo. I much admired her award-winning plays “A Girl’s War” and “The Oil Thief.” And I find it telling that this one, which has been in the works for two years, had its initial development courtesy of The Poets’ Theatre. Indeed, the piece (on which director Jessica Ernst has been a collaborator since the beginning) seems to straddle science, history and metaphysics. It’s set in “the women’s workroom at Harvard College Observatory, late 19th to early 20th centuries.” But, the playwright adds, “Inside the room is the universe.”
In Ernst’s staging for the Nora, the universe is actually above and behind the room, its nebulous clumps of stars swelling and subsiding behind a curtain of strings. The set design is by James F. Rotondo III, the ethereal lighting by John R. Malinowski, the darting, floating projections by SeifAllah Salotto-Cristobal. Together the designers’ effects simulate not only the heavens, but also the regular, seemingly magical descent by dumb waiter of photographic documentation to be studied and classified by the hardworking women beneath.
Though some of the play’s dialogue borders on speechifying, Van Dyke imbues each of her subjects with a distinct personality — as well as with a shared passion and collective ax to grind. Whether bent over their glass plates or having a klatch over wine or tea and cookies, the computers exude dedication to the work, though it’s often tedious and always male-directed, and chafe at their secondary scientific citizenship.
But only Payne, born decades after the others, pulses with the ambition not just to have her achievements recognized, with her own name pinned to them, but also to experience the creative “ecstasy” of being the first human being to discover a phenomenon and thereby know a thing. In this way, the play points toward the art at the core of science.
For the Nora, Amanda Collins, in pleated skirt and flapper bob, portrays Payne with an in-and-out English accent but a steady, starry-eyed drive that is no stranger to frustration. On the other end of the spectrum, Becca A. Lewis brings to the pioneering Fleming both a convincing Scottish burr and brisk, no-nonsense warmth.
Sarah Oakes Muirhead is the delicate, meticulous Leavitt, whose work forewent that of Edwin Hubble. Christine Power supplies Maury with a prickly imperiousness that does not kowtow. And Sarah Newhouse marries drive to merriness as the speedy, nearly deaf Cannon, who developed the Harvard system for organizing the stars and personally classified more of the night-sky twinklers than anyone else.
In the end, these women may link arms rather than climb onto one another’s shoulders — which is definitely better for their backs. But in science as in sisterhood, you welcome support, whatever borders of time and imagination it crosses.
The Nora Theatre Company’s production of “The Women Who Mapped the Stars” runs through May 20 at Central Square Theater.
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