Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
They Promised Her the Moon
What better way for me to celebrate International Women's Day than to reflect on and revel in the inspiring lives and stunning accomplishments of yet two more heroes of American history who have too long been overlooked and almost forgotten. The stories of Jackie Cochran and Jerrie Cobb are now being boldly told and triumphantly celebrated by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in the Northern California premiere of Laurel Ollstein's They Promised Her the Moon. Returning to TheatreWorks after appearing in workshop form in the 2018 New Works Festival, They Promised Her the Moon focuses especially on the life of Jerrie Cobb, a woman who describes her joy of flying as "I hear myself breathing the same air as angel's breathe ... I am not lost ... I just don't want to be found."
We meet Jerrie Cobb as she enters the isolation tank matter-of-factlywith few outward reactions and with almost no spoken remarksto be the first woman thus tested (and with the added burden of probably being the last unless she can at least meet the male-set four-hour record). As the hours pass toward the final tenth, her life to date unfolds in her mind and onstage in vignettes touching, funny, enlightening, and of course, inspiring.
As a ten-year-old staring up at a sky full of the stars she wants to visit, Jerrie gawks, gazes and gasps in wonder and excitement. She pulls on her overalls, huffs and puffs, and has those looks of "golly, gee whiz" that somehow most of us as adults have long ago left behind. But as we shall see, Jerrie Cobb never loses that sense of almost childish awe of the heavens or her antsy, can't-stay-still-for-a-minute desire to be in a planeor at least under it, learning about and working on its parts.
As Jerrie, Sarah Mitchell is a sheer joy to behold. She is totally natural, comfortable and credible playing age ten, sixteen, twenty-six, or on into Jerrie's later decades. We easily share her electrically charged zeal for flying and her determination to be in a planeany plane, anywhereto the point that it is clear flying is as important to her as breathing itself. And we ache when she is sometimes unable to express in words to those in power what is so clearly written throughout her entire being and through all her many accomplishments: Women are just as capable, if not more so, than men to explore outer space.
As her life unfolds during her tank-induced dreams, we meet her chief cheerleader and the initial enabler of her flying, her father Harvey, whose pride in his little girl almost explodes as he sits with her under that rural Oklahoma sky and watches her bursting at the seams to go up in the air with him, a flyer himself. Dan Hiatt embodies every parent who believes to the core in helping a child reach what may seem to anyone else an impossible dream; and while he has some clear faults, like too much fondness for the bottle, it is clear in twinkling eyes that can quickly tear up with pride that his Jerrie is about as perfect as they come.
Unfortunately, that is not quite the way her Bible-thumping mother sees Jerrieat least Jerrie's desire to fly or in later years, Jerrie's many records and accomplishments. Holding a firm belief that a girl needs to learn how to bake pies so she can one day be a bride, Helena tells Jerrie in no uncertain terms to place that jar of ideas about flying "way back in the pantry, behind the pickles." With an Oakie accent that extends the word "want" into a "waawnt" that makes Jerrie's want to fly sound like the devil's own doing, Luisa Sermol's Helena Cobb pleads with her daughter to "Talk to the Lord ... You're all mixed up." But Jerrie, who herself quotes reverently the Scriptures as she contemplates the heavens around her, tells her mother, "I don't believe that God is judging me; God is flying with me."
At sixteen, Jerrie gets a job barnstorming for a traveling circus and by twenty she is teaching Oakie men to fly. Along the way, she catches the eye of Jack Ford, a flyer who delivers planes around the world for foreign governments but cannot find the men willing to take the risks to fly into some of the remote spots required. Jerrie becomes his star flyer, and he, her mentorand eventually more. With cool and big-shouldered cockiness, Craig Marker brilliantly plays a Jack Ford who brims with excitement and encouragement for this young woman who becomes his partner in the skies too stormy for the men who work for him.
Memories continue to flash in her mind as she stands in the isolation chamber, and two people watch in ever-increasing disbelief as the hours tick by. With intense belief that women should be given equal chance as men in space, Randy Lovelace has set up the same physical and endurance tests that he oversaw for the Mercury 7 crew, with financial backing by the sound-barrier-breaking Jackie Cochran, who is also a successful, cosmetics business owner. Anthony Fusco brings an intensity of purpose and belief to his Lovelace, with a visibly visceral drive to push boundaries to the absolute edge of enduranceJerrie Cobb's enduranceto prove his point that women are as good or better than men for space.
Standing beside him is Jackie Cochran in her pearls, drop earrings, and a 1960s blonde hairdo that is fit for a magazine cover. Such a look for a woman who has already broken flying boundaries galore is a natural in her mind, explaining "You can't forget you're a woman 'cause they won't." Stacy Ross snaps and sizzles as the brash and brassy Cochran, who is looking to advance women in space as long as there are also cameras focused on her and headlines announcing what she is doing. This is a woman who says she likes to fly because, "Where else are you going to feel that much control?" Stacy Ross brings her signature dry air, distinct low-register voice, and incredible stage presence to create a truly commanding Jackie Cochran. When Cochran helps ruin the chances of going into space for the very woman she championed, there is no doubt in Ross' quick turn of the shoulder and pounding click of the heels that, for Jackie Cochran, there can only be one name at a time in those headlinesand it had better be hers.
Besides their primary roles, Anthony Fusco, Dan Hiatt, Luisa Sermol, and Craig Marker all have ample opportunities to soaroften with some delightful comic affectin roles that include good ol' boy congressmen in a House hearing (Anthony Fusco and Dan Hiatt); a starry-eyed, hero-worshipping reporter (Luisa Sermol); and America's number one hero whose ego more than matches his fame, John Glenn (Craig Marker). Mr. Marker also duets with Jerrie as he plays a big-mouthed, big-headed Mayor who goes up in an open cockpit with the young flyer and, with her, creates a hilarious scene as the big talker almost loses his lunch while literally crying to get back on the ground.
Giovanna Sardelli directs this Bay Area hall of fame worthy cast with a pace that both pauses in meditation and pulses in frenzy. In her role as director, Ms. Sardelli lays bare moments of hard reality for all to see exactly why women like Jerrie Cobb were denied their rightful destinies. At other times, she creates stage-swirling cyclones of memories and voices that eventually push and pull Jerrie to a desired destiny to be where she describes she is at her best: A place of silence and solitude. For Jerrie Cobb, this will mean thirty years of delivering needed supplies to missionaries in the Amazon where she will once again go where no men dare to go.
Take away this wonderful cast and there are still compelling reasons to come and witness TheatreWorks' production of They Promised Her the Moon. Chief among them is the lighting wonders that have been designed by Steven B. Mannshardt. Using as a pallette the incredibly impressive set designed by Christopher Fitzer which brings to mind a starship itself, Mr. Mannshardt at times creates a sense of other worldliness and at other times the comfort of the familiar. The sky of the universe is ever present and literally descends upon us with all its starry brilliance to make a climactic statement.
Jane Shaw's sound design also takes center stage as we are surrounded by the buzzing of planes, the fury of storms, and the adoration of cheering crowds as well as the serenity of a few daytime birds or nighttime crickets. Cathleen Edwards' costumes cover the decades of the '40s to the '70s, with the humility of Jerrie, the humanity of her father, and the big egos of a number of others properly represented.
How wonderful to spend an evening of live theatre being fully entertained while also being educated about people and events that one should have learned much, much earlier in life. It is also rewarding to go home and Google all these people while sipping a glass of sherry and discover that Laurel Ollstein, Giovanna Sardelli, and this fantastic cast have largely reenacted actual events, personalities and facts. What plays like a novel on stage is actually one of those missing chapters that should have been included in our high school history textbook.
They Promised Her the Moon closed on March 12, 2020, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. For further information, please visit www.theatreworks.org.