The pivotal scene in last season’s Nora Theater Company production of The Women Who Mapped the Stars takes place around a dinner table in the year 1900. Or maybe it’s 1910. Or perhaps 1923.
Four nineteenth century women scientists from Harvard’s Observatory (Williamina Fleming, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Antonia Maury, though few called them ‘scientist’ in those days) are celebrating the New Year, the new century, and imagining new possibilities for women. Cecilia Payne, a British woman who studied at Cambridge (though could not earn a degree), who’s crossed the Atlantic to pursue a PhD. at Harvard, crashes her mentor’s party. It’s a wonderful scene, layered in scientific irony. Bending time confounds the Victorians who, though deep thinkers, know nothing of Einstein. Yet collecting generations of female scientists in a singular place across time confirms a central fact of Cecilia’s reality: relativity.
Satisfying as that scene is, the purest nugget of wisdom in The Women Who Mapped The Stars occurs later. Cecilia is frustrated by observations and calculations that consistently indicate stars are composed primarily of hydrogen; when everyone ‘knows’ they are primarily metals. She craves to see something fresh, new, to be the first, the ‘discoverer.’ Annie Jump Cannon appears at her side and offers a completely opposite perspective; how every time she looks at the night sky, she feels a connection, a unity, with every other creature enjoying that very same view.
Although Cecilia is most definitely female, her 1920’s garb and short bob, render her masculine beside her nineteenth century forebears. Similarly, her desire to stand out, rather than fit in, conforms to our traditional notions of male versus female behavior.
The charm and depth of The Woman Who Mapped the Stars is how it confounds our ideas of women, of science, of progress without hitting us over the head with it (except maybe in the too long finale). The play’s message—a feminist call to enable curiosity and creativity wherever it’s found—lingers well beyond the play’s end.
I don’t what the future holds for this intriguing piece of theater. Although it was developed at MIT and Harvard and caters to Cambridge’s uber rationality, it warrants a wide audience. If you get a chance to see it, grab the opportunity. Like relativity, what The Women Who Mapped the Stars reveals applies to all of us, everywhere.