SEQUIM — The big thrill for Tia Stephens was stepping into the persona of Annie Jump Cannon.
“The more I researched Annie, the more fascinating she became,” Stephens said of her role, the first in which she’s played a real figure from history.
Cannon is one of the female astronomers who, near the dawning of the 20th century, worked at the Harvard Observatory — despite a lack of respect from their male boss, Dr. Edward C. Pickering.
Pivotal points in the women’s lives are revealed in “Silent Sky,” the drama on stage at Olympic Theatre Arts that began last weekend and continues this weekend and next.
“She was incredibly intelligent, hardworking, tenacious and fought for her ideals,” said Stephens. “It has been an honor to portray her.”
Cannon’s colleague, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, is also an astronomer, a Radcliffe graduate eager to join the team at Harvard.
When she first comes to the university, American women have yet to get the vote. The men at the observatory don’t permit women to look through a telescope.
Instead Leavitt analyzes numbers and is called a “computer,” much like the female analysts at NASA some 60 years later — the ones who are the heroines of the movie “Hidden Figures.”
Leavitt’s odyssey as a female scientist, from Ivy League education to independent epiphany and beyond, stands at the center of “Silent Sky.”
Sequim actor Ginny Holladay Jessee plays her in the show, which also features Matt Forrest as Peter Shaw, her romantic interest, Emma Jane Garcia as her sister Margaret and Marissa Wilson as Scottish astronomer Williamina Fleming.
The curtain rises at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 24.
Tickets are $18 general and $12 for students via OlympicTheatreArts.org or by calling 360-683-7326 weekdays between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.
If still available, tickets also are sold at the door of the theater, 414 N. Sequim Ave.
Post-play discussions are held after the Sunday matinees.
Leavitt “is kind of a big nerd like me. She goes on rants,” Jessee said.
The actor has been passionate about “Silent Sky” ever since seeing the play staged in Seattle and in Jackson, Miss., where she lived before moving to the Pacific Northwest.
Leavitt, right out of college, comes to the observatory expecting to practice astronomy; soon it becomes clear she’ll be doing math.
“She’s quick to take advantage of her position,” Jessee said.
“She puts more time in and does more work than she’s getting paid for,” and the eventual result is that Leavitt, without the tools her male colleagues have at their disposal, makes her own scientific discoveries.
“Silent Sky” is by San Francisco-based playwright Lauren Gunderson, whose other works about self-determined women include “Exit Pursued by a Bear,” “The Revolutionists” and “The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog!”
The Sequim “Sky” crew includes director Josh Sutcliffe, costumer Richard Stephens (Tia’s father), lighting designer Ron Coffman and set designer David Willis.
In creating the environment — which includes the Harvard Observatory and Leavitt’s family home back in Wisconsin — Willis sought to show the juxtaposition of a cramped attic and the star-filled universe.
He couldn’t go overboard, though.
“Richard Stephens does these magnificent, big costumes,” said Willis, so “I kept my set simple.”
He noted the chemistry among the actors, several of whom are making their debuts on the Olympic Theatre Arts stage, is strong. The play is a mix of intense emotions and sharp words, Willis said.
He too finds “Sky” inspirational. The story line is still relevant 120 years after Leavitt embarked on her journey; “It shows you how far we’ve come and how far we’ve not.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.