No offense to directors intended, but I’m not usually influenced by their program notes. This time, though, Susan Clement-Toberer grabbed me with three words that closed her comments on the new Blue Barn play, Silent Sky.
She wrote, “Send more sky,” the plea from playwright Lauren Gunderson’s key character, Henrietta Leavitt, who searches Harvard observatory photos for secrets of the vast universe. And the theater lobby added another focus on its provocative chalk-board, asking us to ponder Henrietta’s “faith in grand observation.”
Before exploring parallels between her faith and the more traditional faith of her sister Margaret, add Henrietta to the growing list of re-discovered pioneer women, from the “computers” of the film “Hidden Figures” to that long-forgotten Omaha suffragette brought to light by a College of St. Mary professor and columnist Matthew Hansen.
Back to the sky. It winks in the darkness from a backdrop of a starry black night segmented by lines that slice its awesone infinity. Henrietta (Haley Haas) is hired by a Harvard astronomer to study glass plates with the images from space.
She’s not supposed to speculate on what she sees, just tabulate data. Instead, she works into the night at the office, and when she returns home due to her father’s stroke, boxes of those glass images keep coming as she pleads, “Send more sky.”
The scientific significance of her discoveries, linking the pulsing light of stars to a method for measuring their distance, and paving the way to a universe rich in galaxies rather than confined to our Milky Way, is enormous. And she does it with the support of two women, veterans of the observatory staff, and despite two men who’d limit them, one who awkwardly courts her, the other an unseen professor who runs the research.
So what makes this all a dramatic success? Of course there’s a Eureka moment that comes when she’s back home and her musician sister (Sarah Carlson-Brown) plays a composition that brings a break-through.
And there are the conflicts between her unceasing devotion to studying the sky and the demands of the family and her romance with the man in the office, Peter Shaw played by Christopher Joel Onken. Those office relationships bring good humor, owing a great deal to the playwright and a typically excellent Blue Barn cast.
After resisting her sister’s arguments for staying home, Henrietta arrives at Harvard to find two contrasting women in charge: Annie (Pamela Chase) who first appears to be a starchy nose-to-the-grindstone boss, then loosening up later, and Williamina (Judy Radcliff) whose good cheer immediately makes Henrietta welcome.
Peter Shaw, after providing a stiff orientation, starts finding excuses to visit the office more often as he falls for the newcomer. When he finally confesses his affection for her, she rather formally “approves” of his interest with restraint appropriate to the late 19th century setting.
Unlike her office sisters, however, he only reluctantly accepts her scientific accomplishments.
A major appeal of the plot comes from growing recognition of her work, exemplified by a Princeton astronomer who refers to her as “a star-finding fiend.” Before illness begins to take her away, she hears her colleagues declare, “You’ve measured the universe.”
Haley Haas and Sarah Carlson-Brown carry the main burden of the parallel faiths at the heart of this story. Sarah, as sister Margaret who stays home and raises a family, is found playing and singing a familiar hymn that begins, “For the beauty of the earth, for the glories of the sky,” a song of praise to the creator God.
Her sister Henrietta says her faith focuses on “grand observation,” her devotion to better understanding the mysteries of the universe. They share their appreciation for “the glories of the sky,” and while Margaret praises God for those glories, Henrietta says, “Send more sky,” so she can break its silence.
Silent Sky runs through April 15 at the Blue Barn Theatre, 10th and Pacific Streets, 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 6 p.m. April 2, 2 and 6 p.m. April 9. Tickets are $30, $25 for seniors, students, TAG members and groups. Call 402.345.1576 or visit bluebarn.org.