Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see David's review of Mr. & Mrs. Fitch
The Old Globe is presenting a play on the same topic, about an attempt by a woman pilot to become an astronaut. Because the woman is not named Sally Ride, San Diegans, who count Dr. Ride as a local, are likely to know that she was not successful. Even so, Jerrie Cobb's story is fascinating, and, for the first act at least, Laurel Ollstein's play about her, titled They Promised Her the Moon, keeps audience members on the edge of its seats.
Jerrie Cobb (Morgan Hallett) wanted to be a pilot from a very young age. Her father Harvey (Michael Pemberton) flew planes and got his daughter started on learning early, despite the objections of her mother Helena (Lanna Joffrey). Jerrie's role model was Jackie Cochran (Mary Beth Fisher), a woman who had pushed the military to form the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps and Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. Ms. Cochran also used her considerable influence to become the first woman to break the sound barrier.
About the same time that the "human computers" depicted in Hidden Figures were struggling against both racism and sexism within NASA, Ms. Cochran funded a program designed to train women pilots to the same rigorous standards as the Mercury 7 astronauts. Dubbed the "Mercury 13," the women were never an official part of NASA, but the agency was keeping a close eye on the project, which included a scientist named Dr. William Randolph "Randy" Lovelace II (Matthew Boston), a member of the NASA Life Sciences Committee. Dr. Lovelace was especially fascinated with how women managed to outperform the men he tested, often by substantial margins.
Inevitably, the results were publicized in the press, and the uber-reserved Ms. Cobb found herself featured in Life Magazine. The publicity forced political and scientific officials to take the women seriously, which, unfortunately, led to finding ways to disqualify all of the women in the shadow program.
The Globe's production grew out of a reading it presented as part of its annual Powers New Voices Festival. Director Giovanna Sardelli assembled a first-rate ensemble cast (including Peter Rini as Jerrie Cobb's love interest and also as astronaut John Glenn). She has also staged Ms. Ollstein's play as set, at least during act one, in the isolation tank where Ms. Cobb shattered the endurance records of the male astronauts. It's a great device, in which Ms. Cobb can imagine her life history while Dr. Lovelace and Ms. Cochran can talk about the reality of the women's situation.
Act one concludes with the end of the isolation test. Bringing everyone back to reality in act two in some ways deflates the energy built so splendidly in the first act. While audiences might carry act one's energy into act two, they also might not.
The creative elements are up to the Globe's high standards, especially Jo Winiarski's very creative scenic design, a mobile platform with sliding drawers where props can be kept. The in-the-round design is ably supported by Denitsa Bliznakova's costume design, Cat Tate Starmer's lighting design, and Jane Shaw's sound design.
Under Ms. Sardelli's expert direction, the cast shines, with each member knowing when to step forward and when to hold back. Singling out Ms. Hallett's performance for special praise comes as much from the range she is called on to portray, though she otherwise is every bit a part of the ensemble effort.
It's unfortunate that Ms. Cochran uncharacteristically pulled the plug on her effort to push these women forward as astronauts, but even if she had persisted there were probably too many forces conspiring against sending women into space. Sally Ride wouldn't go into space until more than twenty years later, even though Dr. Lovelace's data suggested that women would have handled the rigors of space travel better than the men who actually became the heroes. But, maybe that's the point: NASA thought it needed men as heroes, not women. Too bad.
They Promised Her the Moon, through May 12, 2019, at The Old Globe, Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, in San Diego's Balboa Park, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego CA. Performances are Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 619-23-GLOBE (234-5623), or by visiting www.theoldglobe.org.