“Silent Sky” at Ford’s Theatre is being billed as a “historical-fiction play about astronomer Henrietta Leavitt,” but it’s really about something much simpler: the timeless struggle between career and family.
This is a challenge one mostly associates with the plight of the professional woman — and it’s true. Vibrating with feminist undertones, the play was written and directed by women — Lauren Gunderson and Seema Sueko, respectively.
“The mind is sexless, and so is the sky,” Henrietta is told by one of her cheerleader colleagues. These are the kind of breathy, elevated platitudes we think of at the dawn of women’s suffrage when we first meet Henrietta, a young woman with passion and intellect to burn.
She wants to be a scientist with her head, quite literally, in the clouds.
Not everyone — including her sister — shares her enthusiasm for the widening role of women sweeping through 1900s America: “They wear pants, these women. It’s ridiculous!”
With a Victorian skirt to her ankles, Henrietta rebukes her family’s urging to get married and takes a job in the Harvard Observatory for 25 cents an hour. “Good money for women’s work,” she’s told by the man who hires her, who refers to the women in her office as the “harem.”
Laura Harris’s Henrietta is plucky and lovable, taking the blatant insults on the chin and then punching back on the “mansplaining.” She’s like a vintage Mary Tyler Moore — all smiles and sunniness in a sometimes dark and ugly man’s world.
Not surprisingly, Henrietta is smarter than all of them, eventually rising to supernova status in her field. Because of her discoveries, other scientists can chart the Milky Way, and someday go to the Moon.
But it’s her sacrifices along the way, not necessarily her pioneering womanhood, that make this such compelling theater.
We see her sister beckon from across the miles to see her newborn child, her ailing father and precious family moments that are missed as Henrietta is at her desk, or with her nose in a book.
A love story is yet another casualty of Henrietta’s obsession with work.
We understand through this story that for every major achievement, discovery or prize there is something or someone that is left behind.
This is the kind of play Ford’s Theatre does so well: a historical drama that highlights relevant American issues in a childproof way.
Most youngsters will take away the progress of the women’s movement, as well they should. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment this summer, we need to celebrate, through art, the struggle that made Henrietta’s dream possible.
But the demands of career, love and family is a human-interest story that never grows old, and is truly shared by men and women alike.
Through Feb. 23
Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW