Thoughts on the Play Insignificant

Back in September, during a clear-skied night here in New York, I was excited to show my six-year-old daughter a total lunar eclipse. She turned to me and asked, "Daddy, do you know what a lunar eclipse is?" I hesitated a moment, digging in my mind for the right words to properly explain it in a way that I thought she would understand. I need not have worried, because the question was apparently rhetorical. She proceeded to explain to me, like a master schooling a novice apprentice, how the Earth casts its shadow on the surface of a full moon when it passes between it and the Sun. I was impressed and have since given my daughter a starter telescope.

If she grows up to pursue a career in astronomy, her way will have been paved by pioneer women who weren't even allowed to use the large telescopes at the observatories where they worked, pioneer women whose groundbreaking discoveries were suppressed, belittled, or buried by the patriarchal hierarchy of professional scientists during a time when women weren't even allowed to vote, pioneer women who were patronized by haughty men the way naive dads sometimes misjudge the intellectual capacity of their children (especially their little girls).

The new play Insignificant at the Kraine Theater on East 4th Street in Manhattan tells the story of these amazing women, who aren't household names, but should be.

Presented by Infinite Variety Productions, a non-profit theater company dedicated to telling the untold stories of women throughout history to audiences across the country, the play dramatizes the hurdles they faced and the achievements they made despite the enormous odds against them. The playwright, Sean Michael Welch, does a commendable job of presenting the subject matter in a way that doesn't dumb down the science or the issues involved for general audience members (you know, people like me who might think we easily know what a dwarf planet is or a gas giant, but if put on the spot would struggle to explain a quasar and a black hole without hesitation, or maybe even pause to find the right words to describe a lunar eclipse). Welch's storytelling acumen allows him to deliver scientific exposition about the classification of celestial bodies and the luminosity of stars without sacrificing the characters' sincere and at times raw human emotions.

The director Colleen Britt manages to bring out the best from her talented cast, weaving them through the simple but extremely effective set of hanging white fabric on which stellar constellations and historic photos are projected. When it comes to the personalities of the characters, I don't know how much Welch's words are grounded in fact and how much might stem from his imagination, but each of the women appears fully realized, multi-faceted, and believable. The story unfolds through flashbacks (and nicely constructed flashbacks within flashbacks, one of many examples of the playwright's enjoyable technique of breaking the "fourth wall" and acknowledging theatrical cliches as he bends them for his own plot-forwarding purposes).

The wonderful Kathleen O'Neill plays Annie Jump Cannon as she mentors the brilliant student Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (a powerful performance by Deanna McGovern), who is about to defend her doctoral thesis that will overturn long-held understandings about the composition of the Sun and other stars.

We time-hop decades and witness the accomplishments of young Annie (a terrific performance by Kaitlyn Huczko who complements O'Neill's strong delivery and mannerisms) and her peers. We see the Scottish Williamina Fleming (portrayed by Laura King Otazo), fight for a living wage to support her family, a fight still being waged by many women today to earn equal pay for equal work. We watch as Antonia Maury (played by Ashley Adelman), whose passion is derogated as just being "feisty," battles to be considered more than just the niece of a male astronomer. We witness Henrietta Swan Leavitt (brought to life by Alla Illvosa) discover the key to gauging the distance of faraway stars. It was a thrill discovering that these characters are based on historic figures and realizing that the captivating scenes actually happened.

The male cast members (Timothy Ellis Riley, Andrew Dunn, and Jordan Gwiazdowski) do a fine job too, serving as a kind of chauvenistic Greek chorus, intentionally interchangeable in the supporting male roles as the story unfolds.

The play is a wonder, driving me to hunt down more information about these amazing women and their incredible accomplishments. Experts in the field of astronomy join the cast on stage after select performances for illuminating talkbacks with the audience. Insignificant runs through December 19, 2015, as part of FRIGID New York @ Horse Trade Theater Group.