Play about first female astronomers is out of this world

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★☆

Rachel Kayhan (as Annie Jump Cannon, right) checks the notes of Isabelle Grimm (as budding astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt), who continues to find eureka moments in her work. Photo by Robin Jackson.

Lauren Gunderson, a San Francisco resident and playwright, keeps popping out plays as fast as an unfixed cat pops out kittens.

Twenty-three so far.

With no indication she’ll be stopping anytime soon.

“Silent Sky,” one of her most recent, is now ensconced at The Barn, where five Ross Valley Players are drawing standing ovations for performing it.

As well as eliciting nearly two hours of laughter.

But the comedy drama about early 20th century women overcoming the odds against them is apt to evoke feelings of “Rocky”-like euphoria as well.

Not to mention plaintiveness.

Along with the rest of the packed house, I experienced all of that on opening night.

Gunderson, a 38-year-old transplanted Atlantan who’s now a San Francisco resident and teacher, likes to claim she’s one of America’s most produced living playwrights. And she’s obviously proud that her plays tend to focus on science and women who are groundbreakers one way or another.

So it should surprise no one that “Silent Sky” is based on real-life actions of the first female astronomers — Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon and Williamina Fleming — who’d been hired by the Harvard University Observatory as human computers.

Because only men were allowed to look through the telescopes, the trio needed to reach conclusions after using photographic plates of images gathered by others.

That didn’t stop them from succeeding, of course — especially Henrietta, the show’s central figure.

Suffice to say that their combined labors ultimately altered the way we all perceive the universe (despite unfulfilled desires to have non-work time include romance and a happy family life).

The intransigent, hard-of-hearing Henrietta — exquisitely played by Isabelle Grimm with more than a touch of intentional abrasiveness — indeed finds it preposterous that she and her two brainy work-buddies can’t use the equipment.

After all, she tells a fictional assistant and wannabe lover, she’s a summa cum laude graduate of Radcliffe, “which is basically Harvard in skirts.”

Grimm is more than supported by the top-notch acting of Peter Warden as the indecisive assistant Peter Shaw, liaison to the women’s unseen boss, Edward Pickering; Alicia Piemme Nelson as Margaret (Margie), patient, faith-immersed sister of Henrietta (Henri) who affectionately describes her humanist sibling as a workaholic who feels no need to be nice; Rachel Kayhan as Annie Jump Cannon, “computer” workplace buddy and women’s vote activist whose cadence and demeanor somehow remind me of Candy Bergen’s Murphy Brown character; and Pamela Ciochetti as the cheerleading first “computer.”

Support comes, too, in the form of superb production values: a breathtaking observatory set by Ron Krempetz, a star-studded light show designed by Harrison Moye, and realistic 1910-1920s costuming by Michael A. Berg.

Even were the garb not in my face, I’d easily determine what the timeframe is via lines like, “There are women these days [who] wear pants and it’s ridiculous.”

The play’s scientific foundation, which thematically brings to my mind the film “Hidden Figures,” might turn off potential theatergoers who fear such a theme would reproduce distance and coolness. But I postulate that the prolific Gunderson has provided sufficient passion in her sympathetic portrait of the 25-cents-an-hour “Pickering’s harem” to warm the Milky Way.

And Gunderson, who’s been the Marin Theater Company’s playwright-in-residence since 2016, certainly knows better than to bludgeon us with either feminist or scientific trope or tripe.

It also helps that this creation — which debuted at a festival in 2011 and has been performed multiple times since (including a San Jose run by the City Lights Theater Company less than a year ago) — is skillfully directed by Chloe Bronzan, who previously guided “Deathtrap” and “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” at the RVP home.

In truth, the words of “Silent Sky” are grounded sufficiently so I’m neither turned off nor overwhelmed by Henrietta’s insights about the relationship between the brightness of the stars and their time periods.

And if the play is imperfect because the first act is too long and the wrap-everything-up closing monologue too dense and too pat (resembling cinematic crawls when a script can’t adequately cover what follows after the action), it’s still remarkably good.

Moreover, as Cannon is quoted centuries before Donald Trump told his first lie or pushed his first environmental rollback, “in our troubled days, it is good to have something outside our planet, something fine and distant for comfort.”

“Silent Sky” runs at The Barn, Francis Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Drake Blvd., Ross, through Feb. 9. Night performances, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $14-$29. Information: www.rossvalleyplayers.com or (415) 456-9555.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →