There are times when a reviewer comes home after a late night to look at his theater ticket and feel like kissing it for the scintillating drama its admission provided. That’s how I felt, in spades, as I looked at author Joyce Van Dyke’s light blue ticket to her play, “The Women Who Mapped the Stars,” now running at the Central Square Theater through May 20.
The setting is the Harvard College Observatory in the late 1800s, just as the door of the 20th century was about to swing open on so many new ways of thinking, so many scientific discoveries. That door was also opening for women in science, but more hesitantly, more creakily, and not with the wide-open brio with which it swung open for able men of most any brand.
This play takes no time at all to introduce the audience to both the opportunities and the obstacles for women, the former dauntingly narrow but doable, the latter all but total but for the most prepared and spirited.
Williamina Fleming, played by Becca A. Lewis with a broad Irish accent, has moved from housekeeper for the male head of the Harvard College Observatory to his invaluable, indefatigable “Gal-Friday” for the mounds of data daily pouring into the observatory offices in need of classification.
Williamina’s broad back and nimble brain are now in service not to heavy Victorian furniture but to a data-filled dumb waiter, center stage, that incessantly pops up and down filled to the brim with data to be unloaded and catalogued.
The dumb-waiter, by the way, is as much an actor in this drama as the infamous steam-gage in Fritz Lang’s iconic dystopian film Metropolis. Both the dumb waiter and the steam gage must be constantly tended or everything blows up “sky-high.”
This constant load on Williamina’s back would bend a less physically and mentally gifted woman double. But while Williamina’s feet are firmly on the ground, her head is upstairs in the stars. (Hey, if you can get an intelligent female clerk for half the price of an off-the-shelf male donkey — why not???)
Trouble is, intelligence can lead one astray, especially with the group of “clerks” that Williamina is tasked with harnessing. Loaded with sheafs of data, Williamina approaches the desk of Annie Jump Cannon, played by Sarah Newhouse, to tell her that she is to shelve her “hobby” of star classification to pat the latest cache of data in place, instantly!
The trouble is that Annie’s “hobby” has become joyful, nose-to-the grindstone research. As happens so often in this drama of starry discoveries, brain-power is scandalously leading women to where “no man has gone before!”
Williamina’s off-the-boat Irish survivor head butts up against Annie’s Boston Brahmin head, which will-not-be-led. Not only is Annie headstrong-hot on the trail not only of classification but also of the creative ideas, tantalizing theories that lie behind and between careful ordering of facts.
Williamina’s head softens first. Her head, loyal, but not to a fault, sees and hears the science of Annie’s arguments, herself gives way to the reasoned passion (in a woman yet!) behind Annie’s industrious passion for mapping the stars.
Comically but pertinently, to add to her argument, Annie waves her hand at the equipment in the Harvard College observatory to remark that right down to the telescope it has been paid for by her family. And that’s for true! Or in pertinent Latin, Veritas!
And here is the drama of the whole play, introduced so dramatically at such an early stage in the staging that the audience willingly jumps on the band wagon of bold, resourceful women — Williamina and Annie only the first two of a five-some, all full of smarts, humor and spunk — who have gotten a foot in the door of the 20th century at the right time and place. There are bumps and bruises — this bandwagon, no limousine — but when a compatriot falls off, esprit-de-corps lends a hand to pull her back up.
Overhead of all this brilliant talk and action a projection of the spangled “floor” of the heavens stares down and moves as if sympathetically as classification changes to theory, the unknown becoming a known.
The applause at the end of this engrossing 90-minute no intermission spectacle was so resounding it sounded like a demand for an encore. That would have been too much for my energy, but the only,” too muchness” of a taut and lucid, totally engaging, night with the stars.
(“The Women Who Mapped the Stars” continues through Sunday, May 20, at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, Mass. For more information, call (617) 576-0278.)