Tuesday, March 10, 2020

'They Promised Her the Moon' tells little-known story

Jerrie Cobb (Sarah Mitchell, left) listens to Jackie Cochran (Stacy Ross) as she expounds on her accomplishments.

In “They Promised Her the Moon,” playwright Laurel Ollstein highlights a little-known but true story from the nation’s space program.

Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, the play focuses on Jerrie Cobb (Sarah Mitchell), who was among 13 topnotch women pilots selected for a NASA program to become astronauts.

It begins in 1960 in Albuquerque, N.M., where she was being tested by Dr. Randy Lovelace (Anthony Fusco) to see how long she could remain in an isolation tank. While there, she reflects back on her life, starting when she was 6 years old in Oklahoma and even then dreamed of flying.

She was inspired and encouraged by her father, Harvey (Dan Hiatt), who was a pilot, but her religious mother, Helena (Luisa Sermol), wanted her to get married and be a housewife.

Eventually she did become a pilot, barnstorming at age 16 and later ferrying planes for Jack Ford (Craig Marker), with whom she had a love affair before he callously dumped her.

One of the chief proponents of the women in space program was Jackie Cochran (Stacy Ross), a record-setting pilot as well as the owner of a successful cosmetics company.

Even though Jerrie outperformed all candidates, both male and female, she was sorely disappointed when NASA abruptly canceled the program. Hence, her dream of becoming the first woman in space was dashed.

One of the more compelling scenes is a congressional committee hearing about women in space. Jerrie was a witness.

Even though one of the congressmen, played by Hiatt, seemed sympathetic, he was drowned out by the sexist remarks of his colleague, played by Fusco. That sexism was echoed by the testimony of John Glenn, played with machismo by Marker.

Harvey Cobb (Dan Hiatt) encourages his daughter, Jerrie (Sarah Mitchell).
Even Jackie turned against her. In the end, her only ally was her father as she became a pilot for missionaries in the Amazon jungle.

This play was one of the hits in TheatreWorks’ 2018 New Works Festival, where new plays get professionally staged readings to aid in their development.

Now it has come to full fruition under the direction of Giovanna Sardelli, the festival’s director and a TheatreWorks artistic associate.

She oversees an outstanding six-person cast with four of them playing multiple roles. Only Mitchell as Jerrie and Ross as Jackie play just one character.

Mitchell captures Jerrie’s singlemindedness and determination, while Ross embodies Jackie’s self-assuredness. The other four fully inhabit each of the characters they play.  

The production is enhanced by Christopher Fitzer’s set, Cathleen Edwards’ costumes, Steven B. Mannshardt’s lighting and Jane Shaw’s sound.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “They Promised Her the Moon” will continue through March 29 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.    

Photos by Kevin Berne