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Women Reach for the Stars in 'Insignificant'

A clever play about the first female PhD in Astronomy and the women who came before her.

Photo by PJ Valentini

It's 1925, and young Cecilia Payne is about to make history as the first woman to ever attain a PhD in Astronomy. And not only that, but her doctoral thesis presents a groundbreaking, almost unbelievable hypothesis: that the sun is composed primarily of hydrogen, not of iron as was previously thought. But when her unofficial mentor Annie Jump Cannon discovers that Cecilia is planning on revoking her findings for fear that her discovery will not be taken seriously because she is a 25-year-old woman, the older astronomer insists on giving Cecilia a lesson on all of the women who came before her who allowed her to become who she is today.

Sean Michael Welch's Insignificant is a shining example of the mission of Infinite Variety Productions, to produce plays about women whose stories have been lost to time but who have changed the world we live in today. It is not simply the tale of one extraordinary woman, but of five: a true ensemble piece viewed through the framing device of one difficult, extraordinary woman passing advice on to another. And in this self-aware, metatheatrical production where Annie presents her life's story to Cecilia as its own performance, lines like "Now might be a good time for an intermission," or "Can you have a flashback within a flashback?" are commonplace and only add to the joy of hearing the story.

Annie's lesson begins all the way back with Williamina Flemming, the first woman astronomer at the Harvard College Observatory who fell into the role after Professor Edward Pickering, frustrated with the work of his assistants, declared that his maid could do a better job. That maid was Mina, a Scottish immigrant and single mother who would go on to discover the Horsehead Nebula in 1888—though she would never receive credit for it. Then came Antonia Maury, whose contributions to the scholarly world were always underscored by her relationship to her more famous astronomer uncle, Henry Draper; Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose formula linking the distance between the Earth and a star and its luminosity would have won her a Nobel Prize had she not died of cancer first; and finally, Annie herself.

Together, the four women contend with meager or nonexistent wages, mocking monickers such as "Pickering's Harem" and a steadfast denial by the academic establishment of the invaluable work they do. In spite or perhaps because of their intricate scholastic pursuits, these women bond on the deepest of levels, demonstrating a beautiful, genuine intimacy enthralling to watch. Both in the nineteenth century and in Cecilia's revolutionary 1920s world, these most humble of women must contend with finding their place on the continuum between taking pride in the work they do and simply making enough money to survive. Throughout, the underlying awareness among all the women that they have only come as far as they have because they were willing to be taken advantage of is chilling, to say the least.

Though a few moments, such as when the quartet of women try to talk about how their mothers inspired them, fall flat, their experiences are eye-opening for modern audiences and Ms. Cecilia Payne (Deanna McGovern) alike. The most powerful moments belong to Mina and to "Henry," such as when a future Annie (Kathleen O'Neill) tells her most modest of friends that she should have won the highest of all scientific honors for her work, but the energy of the four women together holds the play together. The work of the four actresses in the play-within-a-play, Ashley Adelman (Antonia), Laura King Otazo (Mina), Alla Illyasova (Henrietta) and Kaitlyn Huzcko (young Annie) is fascinating to watch, alternating between despair and humor in the most unlikely of places.

The overt theatricality of the piece is not just limited to this Tom Stoppard, Arcadia-esque commingling of past and present, either. The three men in the play, in addition to portraying three directors of the Harvard Observatory over the years, also perform the role of a chorus of fools, with top hats, umbrellas and brightly colored and patterned ensembles as they initiate an over-the-top, satirical commentary on the looks and the merits of the women. Charging onto the scene with an easy dominance that cowed the eager young astronomers in life, in this memory scape the women finally have the opportunity to fight back, much to the audience's delight.

But it is the language of Insignificant that really makes the play larger than life. Whether it's the repeated refrains that span multiple stories—"That's good scotch" in any awkward moment, or "I can always get another hat" when Cecilia downplays the importance of her thesis findings—that give the text an entrancing rhythm and provide continuity in a decades-long story, or simply the act of recounting the conversation between pupil and advisor multiple times, the words warping in each telling until we finally hear the truth, this selective mode of storytelling calls the veracity of every statement made into question. Throughout, the play continues to ask its characters and its audience: how do we choose to represent ourselves when we tell our stories?

With a limited set and technical design, director Colleen Britt's production makes great use of period costuming and a few choice props to establish the world of an astronomy lab in turn-of-the-century Massachusetts. Yet, at each moment of great theatricality, from the pageant introduction of the four women in Annie's story to the magic of looking at the stars, you cannot help but imagine this show as it might have been in a larger or better equipped space. The language of the piece simply calls out for intricacy and grandeur.

Given its immense potential, one can only hope that this is just the first stop on the journey of Sean Michael Welch's bold new play. Infinite Variety Productions has put together a treat for anyone who likes their theater to be as educational as it is entertaining without it feeling like a history lesson. With an innovative script and solid performances all around, this play, the women who inspired it and those who brought it to life are anything but Insignificant.

Insignificant plays at the Kraine Theater through December 19.

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