Theater Review: “The Women Who Mapped the Stars” — Heroines of the Creative Mind

At the heart of The Women Who Mapped The Stars is a drama about the desire of significant female astronomers to be heard and respected.

The Women Who Mapped The Stars by Joyce Van Dyke. Directed by Jessica Ernst. Scenic design by James F. Rotondo III. Costume design by Chelsea Karl. Lighting design by John R. Malinowski. Sound design by Lee Schuna. Properties design by Ian Thorsell. Projections design by SeifAllah Salotto-Cristobal. Dialect direction by Olivia D’Ambrosio. Produced by The Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater, Cambridge, MA, through May 20.

Amanda Collins (Cecilia Payne) in the Nora Theatre Company production of “The Women Who Mapped the Stars.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair.

By David Greenham

Finally, we are seriously examining the way white males have shaped our understanding of the past (for the sake of their own aggrandizement, of course). One fertile area for investigation has been science — particularly space. Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly’s best-selling  book (and its Academy Award-winning film adaptation) made a huge impression on mainstream culture. There’s also a marvelous new documentary out that focuses on early female astronauts, Mercury 13.

The Nora Theatre Company is staging the world premiere of The Women Who Mapped The Stars by playwright and Harvard University professor Joyce Van Dyke, with the help of funding from the Brit d’Arbeloff Women in Science series through MIT’s Catalyst Collaborative. The script is yet another entry what seems to be a healthy new genre: “great women who have been grievously overlooked.”

Van Dyke’s clever premise brings together five important women from two different periods in the history of the Harvard Observatory. At the dramatic heart of The Women Who Mapped The Stars is the desire of these significant astronomers to be heard and respected. Antonia Maury (Powers) asserts one of the play’s major themes: “People hate and fear the creative mind.”

A little over a hundred years ago, Willamina Flemming (Becca A. Lewis), Henrietta Swan Leavitt (Sarah Oakes Muirhead), Annie Jump Cannon (Sarah Newhouse), and Antonia Maury (Christine Power) were key members on the team of “Computers” which was under the direction of Edward Charles Pickering. Pickering is credited with leading the Harvard Observatory during its most active years, and the brilliant women at the center of this play were labeled, sadly, members of “Pickering’s Harem.”

Our guide through the arcane cosmos of early astronomy is Cecilia Payne, whose 1925 doctoral thesis opened up a new understanding of the composition of the stars and was later characterized as “the most brilliant Ph.D thesis ever written in astronomy.” No one believed her results, of course, until a few years later, when a male astronomer drew on her work to “discover” the same conclusions.  Tellingly, in 1956 Payne become the first female to be granted a full professorship at Harvard.

Van Dyke’s story endeavors not only to tell this important story with accuracy and aplomb, but also to help us understand some of the science that these passionate women had mastered. We watch them raise questions about the inscrutable mystery of the stars. At the same time they have to maintain a pragmatic balance: they want to explore the unknown, but must be mindful of clarifying and confirming the work that the men upstairs in the observatory are pursuing. Pickering is unseen in the play, but the control he asserts from above is an ever present pressure. By the time it’s clear that these brilliant women will be overlooked by their boss, we’ve become utterly disgusted. As Maury (Power) confesses “Something rises up much deeper than bile.”

At one point the women talk about male expectations of female looks. “What is the exact degree of attractiveness for a woman?” Cannon (Newhouse) wonders aloud. It’s a pressing question for women, but one that the men sitting in the observatory can ignore — white men are taken seriously no matter what they look like.

Along the same lines, there is a moment where Maury (Power) confidently states “A hundred years from now, 1990, women will be paid the same as men and we’ll look back, appalled.” The irony of the assertion elicits a chuckle from the modern audience. And there is also, deep down, the disturbing suspicion that a century from now people will look back at us, appalled.

The Nora Theater cast is strong and, thanks to Van Dyke’s writing, each performer is given a compelling moment to plea for her heartfelt desire to learn. Still, the text is pretty dense and sometimes becomes bafflingly ‘scientific”; each actress must make some arcane information (at least to laymen) clear to the audience. It’s a daunting task; sometimes the factoids and theory bulldozes by us non-astronomers.

Amanda Collins (Cecilia Payne), Sarah Newhouse (Annie Jump Cannon), and Sarah Oakes Muirhead (Henrietta Swan Leavitt) in the Nora Theatre Company production of “The Women Who Mapped the Stars.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair.

What’s missing in this script, alas, is a sense that its characters are more than their lab work, comraderie, and disdain for Pickering. The play opens with the introduction of Fleming (Lewis) in her native Scotland on the night that her husband has vanished. It gives us a sense of her inner life and suggests some dimension to her character. But the other women in the play are not given even that much complexity. It would have been satisfying to have a few more personal moments incorporated into the narrative. Most   of them come second hand — we are told rather than shown. Collins, as Cecilia Payne, drives the dramatic action; the performer’s energy is present and warm, but she rarely supplies a personal or intimate note.

That lack of emotional connection might also be the result of Jessica Ernst’s deft direction; the evening is filled with clean and sharp stage pictures, but there are few moments of significant reflection. The visuals for the production are generated by James F. Rotondo III’s admirably symmetrical set, John R. Malinowski’s skillful lighting, and SeifAllah Salvotto-Cristobal’s fascinating projections. Chelsea Kerl’s period costumes put the story firmly in its historical context, and Lee Schuna’s ethereal sound design reminds us of the presence of the heavens above.

Performed as a longish one act, the play agilely mingles hope and disappointment. The story’s tragicomedy feels surprisingly contemporary — we still have a long way to go. These important figures in Harvard’s history of astronomy and science are archetypes of women who, for centuries, have faced an unlevel playing field, in academia and beyond. Thankfully for us, they persisted.

Congratulations to Nora Artistic Director Lee Mikeska Gardner for once again selecting a compelling new play, this time in partnership with Ernst and Poets’ Theatre. To quote a line from The Women Who Mapped The Stars, “Life would be a beautiful dream if you could do original work.” Here is original work that should be seen.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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