That frustration will equip Henrietta (Laura C. Harris, nicely calibrating the character’s grit and flaws) to make groundbreaking discoveries about stars’ fluctuating brightness, paving the way for scientists to chart the universe. Henrietta’s zeal for knowledge steels her as she copes with sexism: She collaborates on the observatory’s essential research with female colleagues, the bubbly department co-head, Williamina Fleming (a delightful Holly Twyford), and brusque suffragist Annie Cannon (a persuasive Nora Achrati). But the women — all three are based on real scientific pioneers — aren’t allowed to use the telescope, reserved for men such as Peter Shaw (Jonathan David Martin in a fine comic turn), a bumbling, so-so intellect.
Some of the most moving moments in director Seema Sueko’s sleek production show the downside to Henrietta’s scientific fervor. In one montage-style scene, Henrietta happily catalogues stars at the observatory while her sister Margaret (Emily Kester) writes news-filled letters from Wisconsin. Henrietta can barely muster polite interest in the family tidings. For her, a nephew’s birth is less meaningful than the traits of Alpha Leonis 3982.
Gunderson (Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Peter Pan and Wendy”) is the most-produced living playwright in America, known especially for brainy but accessible plays that recount lesser-known history (often involving female scientists) while wittily entwining idea and human interest. “Silent Sky” is more straightforward and earnestly informative than some of her scripts, but the humor is piquant. Annie and Williamina’s exasperated takedowns of the privileged Peter are particularly funny, creating a satisfying portrait of self-sufficient, loyal, high-achieving women who don’t brook nonsense.
A comparable warmth and crispness distinguish Milagros Ponce de León’s set, featuring elegant stair balustrades evoking an ocean liner — Henrietta sails on one — with the observatory office nestled beneath. Poetically, dangling bulbs stand in for stars. (Rui Rita designed the lighting.)
Like the visuals, André J. Pluess’s original music and sound design have emotional pull (a discord-tweaked hymn sequence, for instance). The sound design also underscores what the play portrays as Henrietta’s key astronomical insight: the idea of star fluctuations as tonal. It’s the kind of game-changing notion you can have, perhaps, only if you’re perpetually vexed at the limits of human knowledge.
Silent Sky, by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Seema Sueko; costume design, Ivania Stack; choreography, Karma Camp. About 2 hours 10 minutes. $22-$72. Through Feb. 23 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. 888-616-0270. fords.org.