In three weeks, the doors of our 30th Season at the Commonweal will officially open. That season kicks off with the compelling true story of Henrietta Leavitt as told by Lauren Gunderson in Silent Sky. Although the play is based on true events and real people, there is one person who is an embellishment on historical facts. That character is Peter Shaw, Henrietta’s romantic interest and fellow astronomer at the Harvard Observatory. Commonweal resident ensemble member Eric Lee is currently busy rehearsing and creating the role of Peter Shaw for our version and he is this week’s Drama Unfolds contributor to introduce you to the man he will portray.
“I come around.” So says Peter Shaw in Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, and so he does. In so very many ways. In the most literal sense, he is tasked with coming around to check in on the “computers” of the Harvard Observatory. These were the women working at detailed calculation and computation in the lab, therefore named “computers.” And in this case, those brilliant women were Annie Jump Cannon, Williamina Fleming, and the most recent addition, Henrietta Leavitt.
About himself, Peter is forced to “come around” to the knowledge that the women whom he is tasked with supervising are very much in positions they had to work for; had to make every conscious effort to attain. Meanwhile, he holds his own position in a career he never really wanted, for which some strings were apparently pulled.
Then there are the ideas themselves. The size of the universe was about to get much bigger at the beginning of the twentieth century. And there are those who are not so comfortable with change. Such a one is Peter. He is hesitant. He bristles at these ideas which seem to uproot the whole of what is known which is where he is firmly grounded. And kindly, generously, and on these ideas, Lauren Gunderson allows Peter to evolve, as it were.
As he speaks fondly of his rounds, I am given the sense of a planet that is aware of its place, orbiting his sun, which is Henrietta Leavitt. Her brilliance burns brightly and, luckily for us all, was given a chance to shine. We would live in a very different world had her mind been shut out of the world of ideas. And I, like Peter, find myself so deeply fortunate to get to spend my time “coming around” to the world of these talented women, whose story I am grateful to tell.