Laurel Ollstein Flies High with Jerrie Cobb’s Dream
by Patricia L. Morin
The true story of hopeful astronaut Jerrie Cobb inspires us to reach for the heavens, and to pursue what we most love.
At TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, in Palo Alto, Jerrie (magnetic Sarah Mitchell) stands alone in a spotlight, with a control tower looming over her. Scenic designer Christopher Fitzler creates a sterile environment with vertical bars of white light and eerie, camouflage wall coverings. In a tightly sealed isolation tank, Cobb is undergoing a demanding psychological test for astronauts.
She hallucinates, and unfolds her life before us.
At age five, shy Jerrie knows “God wants her to be a pilot, even if others do not understand. She longs to “fly … through the clouds … to hear myself breathing. The same air that angels breathe.” She dreams of a freedom I felt when I flew a 172 Cessna Skyhawk on the wings of angels.
She confides her love of flying to her encouraging father, pilot Harvey Cobb (dynamic Dan Hiatt), who supports her independence. Mitchell as daughter and Hiatt as dad portray touching affection.
But dutiful, comical, pie-making mom Helena (charming Luisa Sermol) tries to instill 1950s “domestic” values into stubborn Jerrie. Mom recites Psalms from the Bible to instill a “female” role in her daughter.
When she catches the eye of pilot Jack Ford (confident Craig Marker), Jerrie understands the old adage: “Pilots don’t fly a plane, they wear a plane.” Laurel Ollstein’s script really takes off when Jack, a debonair freight airline owner, hires her to shuttle planes, fueling their short-lived romance. Full of excitement, she becomes, at last, the professional pilot of her dreams.
Jerrie quickly soars to world records, attracting revered and self-absorbed aviatrix Jackie Cochran (witty Stacy Ross). Cochran recruits Jerrie for the Mercury 13 program, which is prepping women as potential astronauts. In superb 50s costumes by Cathleen Edwards, Jerrie swaps her pilot’s uniform for a spacesuit.
Finally, she breaks through the clouds enjoying flashes of fame. We see the shy, charming young girl dissolve into a glory-seeking LIFE Magazine cover girl. Director Giovanna Sardelli artfully coordinates every moving part of Ollstein’s play. Lighting Designer Steven B. Mannshardt creates striking color displays, magnifying our sense of space, delivering a breath-taking ending.
Although they promised her the moon, the flight door is slammed shut on her. Worse, the Russians have landed the first woman astronaut on the moon—her moon, that she watched wax and wane as a little girl.
Dr. Randy Lovelace (Anthony Fusco) announces that the Mercury 13 program is cancelled. And misogynistic John Glenn (Craig Marker) testifies to Congress that he thinks women are not destined to be astronauts. Once again, men in power retreat from gender equality, sending women back to domestic isolation.
Sound Designer Jane Shaw ironically provides “America, the Beautiful” as a backdrop to Glenn’s speech. Glenn degrades women as pilots, using patriotic lyrics to attack women’s rights.
With perseverance and resilience, Jerrie reunites with her first love—flying. She transports goods to missionaries in the Amazon. Despite the loss of a dream, we see that a life’s passion can still be realized.
Spectacular. A must see.
“They Promised Her the Moon” by Laurel Ollstein, directed by Giavanna Sardelli, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, at Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto, through Sunday, March 29, 2020. Info: theatreworks.org
Cast: Antony Fusco, Dan Hiatt, Craig Marker, Sarah Mitchell, Stacy Ross, and Luisa Sermol.
Banner photo: Anthony Fusco (Dr. Lovelace), Stacy Ross (Jackie Cochran), and Sarah Mitchell (Jerrie Cobb)