Steel Beam drama tells story of 19th century woman astronomers

 
By Jamie Greco
Daily Herald correspondent
Posted1/8/2019 2:10 PM
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  • From left, Kassandra Hesek as Margie, Paige Brantley as Henrietta, and Jake Busse as Peter during a rehearsal of Steel Beam Theatre's production of "Silent Sky."

    From left, Kassandra Hesek as Margie, Paige Brantley as Henrietta, and Jake Busse as Peter during a rehearsal of Steel Beam Theatre's production of "Silent Sky." Courtesy of Sean Hargadon

  • From left, Paige Brantley as Henrietta, Jake Busse as Peter, and Kassandra Hesek as Margie during rehearsal of Steel Beam Theatre's production of "Silent Sky."

    From left, Paige Brantley as Henrietta, Jake Busse as Peter, and Kassandra Hesek as Margie during rehearsal of Steel Beam Theatre's production of "Silent Sky." Courtesy of Sean Hargadon

  • From left, Kassandra Hesek as Margie, Paige Brantley as Henrietta, Julie Bayer as Annie, and JoAnn Smith as Willamina during rehearsal for Steel Beam Theatre's production of "Silent Sky."

    From left, Kassandra Hesek as Margie, Paige Brantley as Henrietta, Julie Bayer as Annie, and JoAnn Smith as Willamina during rehearsal for Steel Beam Theatre's production of "Silent Sky." Courtesy of Sean Hargadon

"Silent Sky," a play based on the true story of the 19th century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, whose innovation can be traced directly to the Hubble Space Telescope, will be presented Jan. 11-Feb. 3 at Steel Beam Theatre 111 W. Main St. in St. Charles.

Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays; tickets are $22-28 and available online or by calling (630) 587-8521.

The play, written by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Sean Hargadon of Elgin, focuses a spotlight on Leavitt who, around the turn of the century, discovered that the universe extends beyond the Milky Way, long before the fact was common knowledge.

Henrietta, who arrived at Harvard College Observatory in 1903 excited to work with the Refractor Telescope that was developed there, was disappointed to learn the male scientists would work with the telescope while the women simply logged their data. The women at the observatory included Annie Cannon, played by Julie Bayer of Batavia, and Williamina Fleming, played by JoAnn Smith of Roselle, already at work as computers -- which was a term for human workers at the time.

"What these ladies did was to work six to seven days a week, seven to nine hours a day to catalog the stars," Hargadon said. "Men would be taking pictures with the refractor telescope at night and then these pictures would come on these glass plates and they would decode them."

"They didn't want her creative ideas; they wanted (her) to log the stars and they'll do the work," Hargadon added.

Henrietta persisted and eventually made the discovery that the galaxy doesn't end at the Milky Way but is expanding. Without the women who came before her, however, it's doubtful she would have been able to prove that.

"Annie (Cannon) is known for creating star clarifications which was one of the first ways of organizing and labeling stars. Whereas, Williamina (Fleming) was already discovering stars and nebulae in the universe," Bayer said.

"Because of Willamina's work, Annie's work was made possible and because of Annie's work, Henrietta's work was made possible," Hargadon said, adding, "Nothing happens in a vacuum."

The play also looks at the social constructs and relationships Henrietta lived through in the time of women's suffrage as she steadfastly worked to mark a place in history and yet was mostly dismissed before male scientists took credit for her work.

Smith compared the play to the 2016 movie "Hidden Figures," the story of how a group of African-American women of NASA contributed to the space program in the early 1960s and how their legacy was consequently pushed aside until the present.

"They are the first women astronomers, like the movie 'Hidden Figures' but 100 years before that," Smith said. "I knew nothing about these women; it's just incredible what they were the foundation for."

"It's been fascinating learning about these women's lives," Bayer said. "They are real people who had these great achievements. The final monologue guides you from where they were at, to what came after, and what came after their work at Harvard. The fact that they could do what they did with the limitations they had as far as research and not being able to use the great refractor telescope is remarkable."

Some of the situations depicted in the play parallel the more recent struggles of women in modern times, according to Hargadon, Smith and Bayer. "These were some really strong women who took a stand and had their voices heard which really reminds me of what's happening now," Smith said.

Hargadon added, "The right to vote comes in. These women didn't have families or marriages. If you got married you left the observatory -- that was the culture of the day."

Despite the nature of the subject matter, playwright Lauren Gunderson's writing enables the audience to understand the process without leaving them in the dark.

"It's definitely a human story about the struggles of the work they did and the triumphs. There's science in there. She doesn't dumb it down but, the audience can follow," Hargadon said.

"The writing is so spot on and engaging and it's fun and it's a delight to watch," said Smith. "When I'm backstage watching the actors on stage it's so well written and so well acted. I think everyone will be pleased with the performances, I've been acting for a long time and these are some of the strongest actors I've worked with."

Other cast members include Kassandra Hesek of Batavia, Paige Brantley of Chicago and Jake Busse of Joliet. Stage manager is Tara Schuman of Elgin, and technical director is Andrew Murschel of Arlington Heights.

"When I've talked to people about the play and they go 'Oh, it's about science,' it's so much more than that," Bayer said. "It's about our humanity. It's about our questioning who we are -- all that kind of stuff that's tangible and relatable on many levels. Things that are very human. The playwright does a wonderful job of combining humor and profound questions (audiences) will think about long after the play is done."

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