At the Nora, five pioneering women lost in the stars

Sarah Newhouse (Annie Jump Cannon), Christine Power (Antonia Maury), Becca A. Lewis (Williamina Fleming) & Sarah Oakes Muirhead (Henrietta Swan Leavitt) in THE WOMEN WHO MAPPED THE STARS. Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography.

CAMBRIDGE – They looked heavenward and found inspiration. What they didn’t find was support for the work they loved to do.

In “The Women Who Mapped The Stars,” Playwright Joyce Van Dyke’s cast of characters is five women who made notable advances in the area of astronomy.

Four of them lived in same time period in the late 19th Century-early 20th Century, working at the Harvard College Observatory ,and a fifth is a generation removed, who goes back in time to engage the women whom she believes paved the way for her success.

Again, each of the women contributed to the advancement of scientific knowledge in the world of astronomy and astrophysics at a time when they were discouraged at every turn and all but banned from doing so, not even allowed to use the telescopes where they were working.

There was Annie Jump Cannon (Sarah Newhouse), who overcame hearing loss to work with Edward C. Pickering at Harvard to establish the system for classifying stars according to their temperatures and spectral types. She was also a noted suffragette and battler for women’s rights, although shyness and social awkwardness from her deafness caused her to largely withdraw from a social life.

A Scottish-American woman named Wilhamina Fleming (Becca A. Lewis, with a fine burr) helped develop a common designation system for stars and cataloged thousands of stars and other astronomical phenomena as one of the all-women cadre of Harvard College “computers” who analyzed data generated by the men actually operating the telescopes. Fleming raised a family of three children who could often be found at cavorting at the observatory.

Antonia Maury (Christine Power) studied at Vassar under the acclaimed Maria Mitchell and went to work at Harvard, also as a “computer,” eventually publishing an important catalogue of star classifications in 1897.

Van Dyke here has visited some of the same territory was mined by Lauren Gunderson in her work “Silent Sky,” which had two sterling productions in the past year by Flat Earth and Merrimack Repertory Theatres, and which featured several of the same characters but focused more on the life of Henrietta Swan Leavitt (Sarah Oakes Muirhead), another of the women hired by the Harvard College Observatory to examine photographic plates to measure and catalog the brightness of the stars.

Her groundbreaking discovery on of the relationship between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars was never really acknowledged and appreciated until after her death. She also was deaf, something that perhaps contributed to the social isolation both she and Jump suffered.

The Women Who Mapped The Stars” is the first in a series of new science-themed plays commissioned under the Brit d’Arbeloff Women in Science Series and is also part of the ongoing Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT series of science-themed plays.

The piece eventually evolves into the area of fantasy/science fiction, as Van Dyke imagines Cecilia Payne (Amanda Collins), a noted British astronomer and astrophysicist and the first woman to receive a from doctorate in astronomy from Radcliffe, being able to “bend time” and journey back to 1900, the year she was born.

She meets the other four women through the miracle of time travel, an event mystifying to the women and fascinating to watch at the same times as they discuss the joys and heartbreak of trying to find their way in a man’s world.

The woman note the difference in Payne’s dress, and Leavitt admits to abandoning the corsets typically worn at the time, a symptoms of the constraints that hemmed women in in every area of life.

Cecilia hears their individual stories of what they had achieved, often only to have their work stolen or go unrecognized.

Everyone stands on someone else’s shoulders,” says Payne noting that the work the women did paved the way for her success.

Payne describes her own humiliation, asserting in her doctorate dissertation about the abundance of hydrogen and helium in stars, a theory which was first trashed by astronomer Edwin Hubble and later reluctantly embraced by him.

The excellent cast brights the stories of the women to vivid life. The character of Cannon imagines a time in the future – our time – when women are made whole and are paid the same as men for the same work; it brings winces and laughter, because almost 120 years after the imagined conversation takes place, it hasn’t happened yet.

Director Jessica Ernst in her program notes described the experience of this production as “joyful and illuminating,” and it shows in her coaxing some fine performances and delivering a 90-minute production with smart pacing and staging.

Yes, there is plenty of science here from women who hungered to show what they could do, given half a chance, but there is also humor and heart aplenty as Van Dyke fleshes out human brings who were striving to throw off their man-made shackles and find a way to contribute – and be recognized – in the field they loved.

The Women Who Mapped The Stars” celebrates the achievements of these oft-forgotten pioneers, inspires women of today to “stand on their shoulders” and follow in their footsteps, and reminds us all that women are still reaching for not only the stars, but equal opportunity, equal pay, and a workplace that isn’t weighted against them.

The Nora Theatre Company production of Joyce Van Dyke’s “The Women Who Mapped The Stars.” Directed by Jessica Ernst. Set design by James F. Rotondo III. Costume design by Chelsea Kerl. Lighting design by John R. Malinowski. Sound design by Lee Schuna. Projection design by SeifAllah Salotto-Chriostobal. At the Central Square Theater through May 20.

Amanda Collins (Cecilia Payne) in THE WOMEN WHO MAPPED THE STARS. Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography.