By Jean Lowerison
Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb knew by the time she was 12 (in 1943) that she wanted to be a pilot and when her military pilot father took her up in his 1936 Waco biplane in Wichita Falls, Texas, the deal was sealed. From then on, flying was all she thought about.
She was the despair of her mother Helena (Lanna Joffrey), who wanted her to do what ladies did then — go to college, join a sorority, get married and have children. Oh, and go to church. But Jerrie would have none of it.
She could almost always be found in pants and a shirt, near, in or sometimes under, a plane. But this monomaniacally-driven young woman almost became the first American woman in space.
The Old Globe Theatre presents the West Coast premiere of her amazing story in Laurel Ollstein’s “They Promised Her the Moon” through May 12 at the White Theatre.
Ollstein’s play (brought to the stage after a reading as part of last year’s Powers New Voices Festival) is as unusual in form as the story itself is unfamiliar. Ollstein uses an impressionistic approach to location and time, jumping around in much the way Jerrie’s mind does, as she plows ahead toward her goal.
Morgan Hallett plays the spunky tomboy Jerrie with boundless enthusiasm for things aeronautical and little use for the boring, the “girly” and the terrestrial.
She not only got her commercial pilot’s license at 18 but was a certified ground instructor as well. Her supportive dad Harvey (Michael Pemberton) was always on her side.
She applied for training as an astronaut, and some of the testing for that program is depicted here. Dr. Randy Lovelace (committed Matthew Boston), chair of the Special Committee on the Life Sciences for Project Mercury, tested her — mostly, we are led to believe, in an isolation tank that often resulted in visions, anxiety or hallucinations. The idea was to test the applicant’s limits.
Here she meets Jackie Cochran (cocky but perfect Mary Beth Fisher), longtime friend of Lovelace and a famous pilot in her own right. The first woman to break the sound barrier, Cochran secured her flying habit by marrying rich. She has some useful advice for the young upstart. “Men are useful,” she says, “use them. Then fly right past ‘em.” And “Get a sense of humor, kid. That’s more important than a man.”
Jerrie makes it through the test (with flying colors), but still has trouble finding a job. She finally signs on with self-assured Jack Ford (Peter Rini), owner of Fleetway International, an air ferrying business contracted to the U.S. Air Force. Jack delivers surplus military planes to foreign governments. This job hones her flying skills under perilous conditions.
But will she ever get into space?
As time goes on, she becomes better known for her daredevil attitude as well as her ability. She eventually ends up on the cover of Life magazine, which will put her in contact with some seriously annoying reporters with silly “little woman” questions. Still, she persists in applying for the space program at NASA. When asked why, she says, “I can dance in the sky. I could never dance on the ground.”
Her hopes are dashed when the Navy pulls its approval for more testing, leaving Lovelace out of a job as well. Then NASA scraps its program to add women to space flight. When Jerrie complains to Lovelace, he explains it this way: “Sometimes politics makes the truth irrelevant.”
The choice of the White Theatre was a good one for the Globe. It allows easy access for entrances and exits from several sides, and makes set changes (deliberately minimal) easier. Kudos to set designer Jo Winiarski for the minimalist but absolutely right set design and to Denitsa Bliznakova for her simple, time-appropriate costumes.
Director Giovanna Sardelli manages to keep all the balls in the air at the appropriate times in this very fanciful script. Cat Tate Starmer’s lighting makes you want to see what Jerrie sees up there, and Jane Shaw’s sound makes a solid contribution as well.
Not many plays inspire and infuriate at the same time. This is one. And though you will leave muttering about the power structure (especially if you’re female),
the excellent cast, fine direction and sheer importance of the story make “They Promised Her the Moon” a must-see.
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at email@example.com.