by Steve Nardoni
Baby-boomer boys were told that, after aspiring to be president, the next great job would be to become an astronaut. (Where are those boomers that should have run for President in 2016?) No such career paths were suggested for women in the ’50s and ’60s. Instead, it was “get married and have babies.”
Despite such gender shibboleths, in They Promised Her the Moon, now playing at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, we learn that women were indeed at first considered for the space program, but only because a privately funded program, First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLAT), which was initiated by Jackie Cochran, a female aviator of the era who longed to go into space but was a little too old.
But this story is about Jerrie Cobb (Amanda Quaid), who got the bug for flying from her father. The show opens with a 28-year old Cobb being tested under the Mercury 13 program and set into an isolation tank to measure the physiological effects of weightlessness. As Jerrie, Quaid morphs in flashback from an aspiring astronaut in a tank to a 12-year old Oklahoman with dreams of flying. She and her dad (John Leonard Thompson) revel at the stars in the night sky and we learn of her speech impediment (“Speak! Geraldyn, just spit it out, girl. Speak!” her teacher shouts.) No one was hearing anyway, except her dad, of her desire to fly a plane. In exchange for Jerrie submitting to an operation to correct her speech defect, Dad agrees to take her up in his biplane. She finds her voice, lock-steps into her dream and her life changes.
So begins this heartwarming story of a woman trying to fulfill her dreams against all odds, hindered by the solid walls built by men . . . and women. Those walls are replicated in the simple staging: five back-lit flats flash light and dark with a mere three podiums serving as staging of points in Jerrie’s life. One is lit throughout with the silhouette of Jerrie in the isolation tank—a reminder of her isolation in the world of men while at the same time demonstrating her physical superiority by lasting nine hours and 50 minutes in the tank while the men in Mercury 7 lasted no more than four hours. She out-tested all the men in Mercury 7, including John Glenn.
But we also learn, alas, that “science is not enough” and that “sometimes politics makes the truth irrelevant.” Sound familiar? Despite her amazing experience (by 1960, she had 7,000 hours of flying time and held three world aviation records: the 1959 world record for nonstop long-distance flight; the 1959 world light-plane speed record; and a 1960 world altitude record for lightweight aircraft), she and her FLAT mates were unable to convince Congress to allow women into space. John Glenn testified: “The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.” The ultimate betrayal is from her benefactress Jackie Cochran (Andrus Nichols) who tells Cobb, “There’s a right time and a wrong time. It wasn’t time. You’ll just have to wait, darlin’.”
So we have in this production a familiar theme. What is delivered, however, is a solid story by Laurel Ollstein, impeccably directed by Valentina Fratti and skillfully acted. Ms. Quaid is sincerely convincing as a 12-year old as she is a barnstorming young lady, a NASA wannabe and a solo pilot maneuvering through the jungles of the Amazon. The rest of the cast provides just the right ensemble performances to bring us back and to remind us that even some things haven’t changed much.
They Promised Her the Moon. Through May 27 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street (between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). www.mirandatheatrecompany.com
Photos: Jeremy Daniel