Like the critically acclaimed film “Hidden Figures,” “Silent Sky” — the play opening this weekend at Olympia Little Theatre — spotlights women whose behind-the-scenes work reached for the stars.
“Women had a big role in the development of our thoughts about the universe,” said Deane Shellman, who’s making her Little Theatre directorial debut with “Silent Sky.” “It’s a story that most people just don’t know.”
Lauren Gunderson’s 2015 play tells the true story of early 20th-century astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (Paige Doyle) and fellow female “computers” in the Harvard Observatory. Tasked with cataloging stars, Leavitt discovered more than 2,400 variable stars. The patterns she discovered among the stars enabled later astronomers to measure the distance to the stars.
“Her contribution was important, and it was ignored,” Shellman said.
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“I had no idea until I read this play that we didn’t know until the early 20th-century how far away the stars were,” she said. “Things that we take for granted — that our galaxy is one of a possibly infinite number of galaxies, that the universe is vast, that the stars are light years away — were not understood.
“The work that the ladies in this show did set the foundation for the discoveries of exactly how far away the stars are, exactly where we are in our galaxy, and our teeny-tiny infinitesimal place in the universe.”
Leavitt took a job some might have seen as menial, one that paid the same wages a servant received and made the most of it, the director said. “That’s what spoke to me personally,” she said.
“Within small, tiny, precise work, she makes a grand discovery,” she added. “Somebody with imagination and vision can take a routine job and make something wonderful from it.”
As Leavitt and fellow “computers” Annie Jump Cannon (Heather R. Christopher) and Williamina Fleming (Erin Quinn Valcho) worked together to uncover some of the mysteries of the stars, so Shellman and her mostly female crew hope to uncover for local audiences some of the little-known accomplishments of women in science.
Among those working behind the scenes on “Silent Sky” are Kate Ayers, who did sound design, Olivia Burlingame, who did lighting design, and Pug Bujeaud, who designed the projections that create a backdrop for the action, so the show is set among the stars.
Illuminating the history of women in science is an important goal for Gunderson, who’s also written plays about 19th-century computer programmer Ada Lovelace and 18th-century physicist Emilie Du Chatelet.
“I find deep and thrilling drama in the course of scientific progress and put it onstage as much as possible,” the playwright wrote on her website, laurengunderson.com.
During the 2016-2017 theatrical season, she was the most-produced living American playwright, according to American Theatre magazine.
Next summer, her play “The Book of Will” will be produced at the outdoor Elizabethan theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. The play, about the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio, will be the first original work by a female playwright to be presented in the 1,190-seat theater.
In a 2016 interview, Gunderson told The Associated Press that she finds drama in key moments in history, though she also writes contemporary plays, including the science-themed musical “The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful (and her Dog).”
“What makes science so great for theater,” she told the AP, “is it’s about these moments of great change, great discovery.”
What: Olympia Little Theatre opens its season with a drama about pioneering astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt.
When: 7:25 p.m. Friday and Saturday plus Sept. 7-9, and 1:55 p.m. Sunday and Sept. 10
Where: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia
Tickets: $11-$15 general admission, $9-$13 for students and season ticketholders
More information: 360-786-9484, olympialittletheatre.org
Also: After the performance on Friday, Sept. 1, members of the Tacoma Astronomical Society will offer theatergoers the chance to see Saturn and Delta Cephei, one of the variable stars that Leavitt studied.
Learn more: Hear playwright Lauren Gunderson talk about Leavitt’s work at youtube.com/watch?v=b7XQGMnxikw.
The rest of the OLT season
• “All the King’s Women,” by Luigi Jannuzzi (Oct. 12-22): This fast-paced comedy focuses on stories from the life of Elvis Presley.
• “On Golden Pond,” by Ernest Thompson (Dec. 1-17): This love story about a couple of senior citizens is well known, thanks to the 1981 film version that starred Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda.
• “Communicating Doors,” by Alan Ayckbourn (Jan. 19-Feb. 4): This intricate comic thriller involves time travel and murder.
• “Butterflies Are Free,” by Leonard Gershe (March 9-25): This quirky play tells the love story of a young blind man living on his own for the first time and his free-spirited neighbor.
• “Talley’s Folly,” by Lanford Wilson (April 27-May 13): This 1980 romance, which won Wilson the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, has been described as a sweet and funny love poem about an unlikely couple separated by class and background.
• “Suite Surrender,” by Michael McKeever (June 8-24): This screwball comedy, set in 1942, boasts feuding divas, mistaken identities and a spoiled dog.