TR Robertson — The Globe’s West Coast premiere of “They Promised Her the Moon” is a cleverly conceived and uniquely staged glimpse of a part of NASA’s history few people have ever heard of or know anything about and perhaps something NASA would rather not talk about. Playwright Laurel Ollstein and director Giovanna Sardelli have brought, to the Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, the story of Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb and her quest to become an astronaut and join, along with other women, male counter-parts in NASA’s early space program. The group of women, referred to as the Mercury 13, were selected to take part in an experimental program where they took tests similar to those the men took and the results would surprise many in the program, but the success these women had would be taken away by outdated bureaucratic regulations.
Photos by Jim Cox
Playwright Laurel Ollstein is an award-winning writer, director and teacher who holds a MFA in playwriting from the School of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA. As she began to research information about women astronauts she discovered a part of the space program, involving women, she had never heard of. This would lead to finding out about the politics, sexism and outdated regulations surrounding the space program in the 50’s and 60’s.
Historically, William Randolph Lovelace II, chairman of the NASA Special Advisory Committee on Life Science in the 60’s, took part in developing the three phase tests male astronaut candidates took part in for NASA’s trials. In 1960, Lovelace, and Brig. General Donald Flickinger, recruited Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb to take part in the same tests the male astronaut candidates endured. The testing was financed by the husband of Jacqueline Cochran. Cochran was a well-known female aviator who was the first woman to break the sound barrier. Cobb would successfully pass all three phases of the testing, even scoring higher than many of the Mercury 7 male candidates. Cobb and Lovelace
would eventually recruit 19 women to be tested. Twelve of the women would pass the testing, along with Cobb, and Cochran would coin the name Mercury 13 and refer to the trainees as the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLAT’s). All indications, according to Cobb, was that she would become an astronaut and join the Mercury 7 group, but a series of technicalities lead to Lovelace shutting down the program and dismissing the female candidates. NASA did not consider the program, Lovelace was running, a part of the NASA astronaut candidate program. It was pointed out that even though the women had flown numerous planes, none had had the opportunity to fly a jet and this was considered one of the priorities. Cobb and Janey Hart flew to Washington, D.C., in 1962, to meet with various political members, including Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Public Hearings were also held to look into gender discrimination. Cobb pointed out that many of the women had given up jobs to become a part of the program and had successfully passed tests scoring higher than the men. Astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter spoke against the women being allowed in the program as they felt their qualifications did not meet the necessary standards. The committee supported the recommendations of the astronauts and denied the request of Cobb and Hart. It would take until 1978 before women would be selected as astronaut candidates. Cobb would disappear from the states and for 30 years would work in missionary work flying humanitarian trips bringing in supplies to indigenous tribes, flying in medical workers and finding new air routes to reach into the depths of the Amazon jungle. It would not be until “They Promised her the Moon” appeared Off-Broadway that people would become aware of the risk, dedication and commitment these women had to make a difference and reach a dream of flying in space. A documentary film, directed by David Sington and Heather Walsh, also appeared in 2018, called “Mercury 13” that profiled the women selected for the testing only to be rejected for the astronaut program. The film is available on Netflix.
Ollstein’s play begins with Cobb beginning in the isolation chamber test as Dr. Lovelace oversees the program. Jerrie Cobb is played by Morgan Hallett, who returns to the Globe, having performed both on Broadway and Off-Broadway in numerous plays. Her energy and enthusiasm allows Hallett to present Cobb in numerous flashbacks beginning with a young Cobb developing a love of flying, dealing the a physical speech deficiency, working in a variety of flying jobs, meeting Jack Ford and flying for him overseas, to the time she is recruited for what she feels will be a chance to fly in space. Hallett presents for us a portrayal of what Cobb must have been like in real life. We see a young lady that flew a plane at age 16 and was teaching men to fly at age 19 and had a you can’t tell me I can’t do that attitude about her life.
Ollstein presents Cobb’s father as a man who loved his daughter, was a little afraid of his wife, and would do anything to help his daughter reach her dream of flying. Michael Pemberton plays Harvey Cobb, and steps in as “Others” for the play. Pemberton is making his Globe debut. He is sincere in dealing with his shy daughter and presents Harvey as a man who wants to make sure his daughter has a chance to reach her goals, evening using a little bribery along the way. Jerrie has a speech impediment and needs surgery. To get her to go along with this so she can speak easier he bribes her with taking her up in a plane, the plan works.
Lanna Joffrey plays Helena Cobb, Jerrie’s mom, and “Others” as well. She is a Craig Noel Award winner for her performance in “A Thousand Splendid Suns” at the Globe last season. As Helena, she presents Jerrie’s mom as a woman caught in the stereotypical 60’s, a woman’s place is married and in the home. She feels Jerrie’s desire to fly is a foolish dream. Joffrey presentation of Helena has the audience shaking their heads at the frustration Jerrie must have gone through as she fought through the “attitude of the time”.
Mary Beth Fisher portrays Jackie Cochran, wife of the gentleman who financed the testing program the Mercury 13 were involved in. As Cochran, Fisher shows her as a feisty, in your face, tough speaking woman who Cobb looked up to. Cochran was an accomplished aviator for her time and presented a woman Cobb could model herself after. Cobb’s disappointment with Cochran would occur when Cochran did not fight for the Mercury 13 women to become part of NASA as Cochran felt she would be beating her head against a wall and she felt she had other things to accomplish. Fisher is brilliant as Cochran and in one of the opening scenes we see her, she doesn’t miss a beat as her high heel become stuck in part of the flooring and she continues on in bare feet, never missing a line. Fisher is an accomplished theatre, film and television actress. She has received numerous awards, including a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award.
Rounding out the six person cast is Matthew Boston as Dr. Randy Lovelace and Others and Peter Rini as Jack Ford and Others. Boston is also an accomplished theatre, television and film actor as is Rini. As Lovelace, Boston presents him as a man who is perhaps more concerned with the success of his tests rather than the fact that these women are accomplishing something never before done. When all is falling around the program, Lovelace doesn’t offer support or seem to want to stand-up and fight for equity in the space program. He does make a statement that is certainly poignant today when describing Cobb’s frustration with telling the truth about the program, “Sometimes politics makes the truth irrelevant”. The banter between Cochran and Lovelace is humorous as the good doctor wants to maintain control and Cochran reminds him of who’s paying the bills. Rimi’s main character is Ford, an adventure seeking business man who wants Cobb to join him in transporting goods all over the world. There seems to be a slight romantic interest between Cobb and Ford, but the play doesn’t dwell on this.
For most people in the audience, this is the first time they have seen anything about the Mercury 13 and the struggle these women had in trying to cross into a male dominated program. These ground breaking women began the strides taken which would eventually see Sally Ride as the first American woman in space. Since then a number of women have joined the space program.
Ollstein’s play is a little bit history, a little bit political statement and a little bit social statement. What comes out is a great portrayal of a woman who tried to fight for gender equity and a chance to live her dreams. Director Giovanna Sardelli’s Production Team consisted of Scenic Designer Jo Winiarski, Costume Designer Denitsa Bliznakova, Lighting Designer Cat Tate Starmer, Sound Designer Jane Shaw, Dialect and Vocal Coach David Huber, and Production Stage Manager Jess Slocum.
“They Promised her the Moon” will be at the Old Globe theatre until May 12th. Tickets start at $30.00. They can be purchased at www.TheOldGlobe.org or call 619-234-5623.