Sixty years ago, the Space Race that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union had all eyes focused on the heavens. At the same time, an equally contentious Earth-bound battle of wills took place as talented American women pilots fought for inclusion in the first cohort of NASA astronauts. This forgotten chapter of gender inequity is told in “They Promised Her the Moon,” receiving its west coast premiere at The Old Globe.
The year is 1960 and plucky, ponytailed Jerrie Cobb (Morgan Hallett, who has you rooting for her from the get-go) is about to undergo a sensory-deprivation test thought by then experts to determine a person’s ability to withstand the stress of isolation during space flight. In a sound-proof room, she’s suspended in a tank of body-temperature water. We learn that strapping male jet pilots who took the test lasted no more than four hours before experiencing hallucinations. Jerrie Cobb will remain in the tank for 10 hours without adverse reactions.
Monitoring her vital signs are Dr. Randy Lovelace (Matthew Boston, as an earnest, sympathetic character) and pioneering aviator Jackie Cochran (Mary Beth Fisher in a swaggering, take-no-prisoners performance).
Dr. Lovelace’s willingness to subject women pilots to a battery of torturous physical, medical and mental examinations is pragmatic. From an engineering standpoint, it’s more practical to send women into space due to their lower body weight and oxygen requirement as compared to men. Cochran, who is bankrolling the unsanctioned tests with her wealthy husband’s money, has a vested interest not only in advancing women in flight and but also in her carefully cultivated celebrity as the first woman pilot to break the sound barrier.
With Jerrie in the isolation tank, vignettes from her Oklahoma childhood show her at age 12 pulling back the throttle on a rickety, open-cockpit biplane, cheered on by her Army pilot father, Harvey Cobb (Michael Pemberton). Less enthusiastic is Jerrie’s deeply religious mother Helena Cobb (Lanna Joffrey), bitter at life, who advises her daughter to put her flight ambitions in a jar, tightly screw on the lid, and “place it in the pantry behind the pickles.”
But Jerrie is consumed by flying. From barnstorming for a circus to setting world speed and altitude records while still a teenager, she’s soon flying around the world in abysmal weather over uncharted waters delivering monster aircraft for a company owned by love interest Jack Ford (Peter Rini, who also plays John Glenn in the story).
No one is more capable than Jerrie Cobb to challenge space. No one is more cheated by the powers that be and the betrayal of people she trusts.
Much has changed in the intervening decades regarding a women’s access to opportunities. Proof positive is the boffo all-woman team behind this production of “They Promised Her the Moon”: Playwright Laurel Ollstein, director Giovanna Sardelli, set designer Jo Winiarski, costume designer, Denitsa Blitznakova, lighting designer Cat Tate Starmer and sound designer Jane Shaw. A nice touch is hearing “I’m a Woman,” recorded by Peggy Lee in 1963, piped into the theater during intermission.
In the weeks leading up to and immediately after the opening of this powerful production, twin bittersweet announcements made headlines: First was news of Jerrie Cobb’s death at the age of 88; the second was a U.S. woman astronaut will co-pilot a Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station, where she’ll complete a six-month mission, space walks and all.
By Lynne Friedmann