Woman Alive" - 3/24/04
Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Kaleidoscopic View of
America's Greatest Aviatrix

Also see Bob's review of tick ... tick ... BOOM!

There is enough material crammed into Karen Sunde's The Fastest Woman Alive, the world premiere play currently on view at Luna Stage in Montclair, for several full length plays.

Unfortunately, Sunde has chosen to write a kaleidoscopic piece which is more appropriate for cable TV's "Biography" series than it is for the stage. However, there are elements of creativity here that indicate that Sunde could reshape her material so as to structure a compelling play about her fascinating subject.

The Fastest Woman Alive is the fascinating, true story of the extraordinary Jackie (Jacqueline) Cochran. Cochran was born into extreme poverty in Florida in about 1908 and received only two years of formal education as a child. In 1932, after having established a cosmetics business, she met wealthy industrialist-financier Floyd Odham (who would soon become her husband) who suggested that she learn to fly in order to conduct her business successfully.

From that beginning, her unique and extraordinary life as an aviator quickly took shape. The range of her accomplishments is staggering. At the time of her death, she held more records as a pilot than anyone in history. As a test pilot extraordinaire, she was at the top of her field.

Cochran made significant contributions to Britain and then the United States during World War II by devising and administering programs which provided training for women pilots and the administrative organization for their deployment ferrying aircraft to where it was needed. She founded and headed the US Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS).

Cochran served as a foreign correspondent at the end of the war covering the Japanese surrender and Nuremberg trials. Thereafter, she returned to flying, continuing to set aviation records. An intimate of Presidents Johnson and Eisenhower, she long continued to be influential in business and politics.

Her contributions and accomplishments as an aviator and aviation administrator were hampered by prevailing sexist attitudes. Male pilots, sometimes performing criminal acts of sabotage according to Sunde, and many others in the military and political establishment fought her goals.

The play, already in overdrive, begins on the day in 1953 when Cochran broke the sound barrier with the help of famed test pilot Chuck Yeager. It then flashes back to her childhood. From there, it rapidly streaks forward in a series of dozens of loosely connected scenes which often play more like sketches. The Fastest Woman Alive spans more than 70 years, culminating in Cochran's death in 1980. Especially early on, we are uncertain as to the time frame in which events are occurring. Only the scenes (during the second act) involving Cochran's efforts during WW II truly engage our interest.

However, there is a creative theatrical thread running through the play which clearly displays that Sunde is more than a mere chronicler. This is enabled by the fact that Jackie Cochran is truly a woman of legend. There are differing accounts of crucial elements of her story.

Most intriguing is the mystery of her early childhood. Some believe that Cochran's claim that she never knew her parents and that she was raised by foster parents is untrue. The play endorses the theory that Cochran was raised by her birth parents, and posits a very believable and moving explanation for Cochran's not being forthcoming about them. Additionally, she weaves Cochran's attachment to a childhood treasure with which she was buried into the mix.

Susan Patrick is convincing and energetic as Cochran. As per Sunde's script, Patrick's Cochran is not a particularly likeable individual. Her startling congressional testimony against establishing training for female astronauts (in order not to delay our space program, she testified) during the early days of space exploration is attributed here to her jealousy over being rejected from participation because of heart problems and a lack of formal qualifications.

Cochran is always shown in drive mode. Essentially, we never meet the three dimensional, socially ingratiating person that she must have been to have won the affection of Odham, Yeager, Amelia Earheart, and Eleanor Roosevelt, among other accomplished people.

The scores of characters depicted are portrayed by a talented and energetic troupe of four amazing actors. At times, it is amazing to observe how well the actors speed from one persona to another. Yet they usually manage to lend unique aspects to each of their roles. David Sitler (as Floyd and the crustier types), Jack Speck (as Yeager and the more muscular types), Seleena Harkness and Jenne Vath (portraying a multitude of mostly women whose lives were affected by Cochran) all deserve praise and gratitude for their fine work.

The abstract set (at its center is a series of five see-through screens tilted so as to suggest the wing of a plane) by Fred Kinney, the many evocative costume designs by Amy Ritchings and the elaborate lighting by Jill Nagle are all first rate.

Director Cheryl Katz is worthy of praise for the terrific performances, and she certainly keeps things moving. Katz has given The Fastest Woman Alive a production which perfectly matches the content of the script.

However, the play itself denies the events, the characters, the actors and the audience, the room to breathe that is necessary for satisfying and involving drama. Less, a lot less, would have been more.

The Fastest Woman Alive continues performances through April 11, 2004 at Luna Stage, 695 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042. box office: 973-744-3309, ext.207; online www.lunastage.org

The Fastest Woman Alive by Karen Sunde; directed by Cheryl Katz. Cast: Susan Patrick (Jacqueline Cochran); (and in alphabetical order): Seleena Harkness; David Sitler; Jake Speck; Jenne Vath.

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Bob Rendell

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