By Albert H. Fulcher | Editor
Playwright Laurel Ollstien and Director Giovanna Sardelli’s West Coast premiere of “They Promised Her the Moon” is an exhilarating journey brought to vibrant life on stage that takes the audience over the moon and back.
Casting for all actors was outstanding, many doing multiple roles with each character standing on its own without wavering. With such a fine repertoire of talent, this play is as prodigious as they come, and the revelations of history untold is a precious jewel for those who see it.
It revolves around American aviator and first female astronaut candidate Jerrie Cobb (Morgan Hallet), part of the Mercury 13 — an unofficial NASA program that subjected 13 women to the same physiological screening tests as their Mercury 7 male counterparts (including John Glenn and Alan Shepard.) Cobb ranked in the top 2% of all astronaut candidates for both genders.
Cobb underwent the “dog dip,” a test that simulates zero gravity in an 8-foot tank of warm water with no sounds, smells or stimulation of any kind. The objective? To find out how soon a person became dysfunctional and how they dealt with hallucinations. The top time, for the male Mercury 7 astronauts, was four hours. Cobb remained in the tank for more than 10 hours.
This is where the majority of Cobb’s life is discovered through masterful storytelling in “They Promised Her the Moon.” Through her hallucinations, we see her story from early childhood, her passion to fly, her success as a pilot and everything she accomplished until training for Mercury 13.
This use of artistic direction was brilliant in the telling of her life. And hers is a story of determination, love, passion, betrayal, insecurity and self-confidence — everything needed to captivate an audience from beginning to end. Although the production’s male players confirmed the excellence of acting in multiple roles, the women illuminated the stage and shined a light on this part of history.
Hallett’s strong performance exuded the desire, obstacles, insecurities and drive that brought Cobb to life in this play. She burnished as she interacted with the characters. The father she loved, the mother she wanted to love her, the man that gave her a chance when nobody else would, those that put her through rigorous training, and those that betrayed her trust. From beginning to end, Hallett formidably commanded the stage.
Mary Beth Fisher played the infamous female aviator Jackie Cochran and was nothing short of stellar in portraying the first woman to fly a jet and break the sound barrier. She decreed the arrogance, determination and fortitude of a woman making history in a man’s world. Her performance demanded admiration for Cochran, despite her self-centered intentions.
Jerrie’s mother, Helena Cobb (Lanna Joffrey), stayed in Jerrie’s head throughout the play demeaning her desire to work in a man’s world instead of being a proper Christian woman, wife, and mother. Joffrey was superlative in her role, quickly becoming the woman you loved to hate.
Women traveling in space is common now, but the journey to get them the equal rights as astronauts is still something yet to be accomplished. Even as the United States vied with Russia to become the first nation to send a woman into space, the culture of America stood in the way. “They Promised Her the Moon” is a fascinating journey into the little-known history of that fight for equality and how an expert aviator, a world record-holding pilot, was never able to reach her dream of traveling into space.
The Old Globe delivered a spectacular interpretation of this moment of time and space in American history. And with Jerrie Cobb’s recent death at the age of 88 on April 18, there is no better time to tell her story.
— Albert Fulcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.