The play tells the story of Jerrie Cobb (played by Sarah Mitchell), a brilliant American aviator who hoped to be the first woman to go to space, only to have her astronaut dreams thwarted by sexism.
The show begins in 1960, when, privately funded by record-breaking female pilot Jackie Cochran (Stacy Ross), Dr. Randy Lovelace (Anthony Fusco) and his team recruit qualified women, including Cobb, to become part of "Mercury 13." The female recruits undergo the same rigorous physical and psychological tests as the celebrated male astronauts in NASA's Mercury program. Cobb passes the grueling tests, including spending nearly 10 hours in an isolation tank, doing better, in fact, than most of the men. She's hailed in the media as the first "lady astronaut" and feels sure her dreams are about to come true. Historical spoiler alert: It doesn't turn out that way.
Ollstein's play, well directed by TheatreWorks' Artistic Associate and Director of New Works, Giovanna Sardelli, explores Cobb's story first in flashbacks, from her childhood as a shy, tongue-tied kid in Oklahoma, where she enjoys the support of her alcoholic pilot father (Dan Hiatt) and clashes with very conservative mother (Luisa Sermol). Cochran, a cocky, wealthy, glamorous ace aviator who led the Women Airforce Service Pilots during WWII, is Cobb's idol who becomes her mentor and, eventually, her frenemy.
Act 2 deals with the disappointing crash landing of Cobb's plans.
The audience feels Cobb's heartbreak at having her dreams dashed for reasons of prejudice. The Soviets ended up with the first woman in space — Valentina Tereshkova, who in 1963 shattered Glenn's orbit record. It would take decades for America to finally bridge the gender gap, with Stanford University's own Sally Ride in 1983.
But this is Cobb's tale, and Mitchell gives a fine performance as the awkward, deeply spiritual woman with a backbone of steel, who should have become a major name in American history. Ross, though, as the more flamboyant, comical and shrewd Cochran, also makes a strong impression, drawing the limelight whenever she's on stage. The rest of the cast takes on multiple roles, including flesh-crawlingly sexist newscasters and a pair of blustery opposing congressmen. Craig Marker plays John Glenn, the swaggering American astronaut who condescendingly deters gender equality in the space program.
"They Promised Her the Moon" comes to the local stage on the heels of the recent death of Katherine Johnson, the African American female NASA mathematician critical to early spaceflight, whose story is celebrated in "Hidden Figures." It also comes at a time when many are feeling frustrated thanks to society's ongoing misogyny, writ large right now with the dwindling likelihood of a woman president being elected any time in the near future. This makes the show more than just a look back into history at a figure who deserves to be better known. It also gives it a relevance to the present that helps connect Cobb's crackling anger and sadness to that of some in the audience.
"Men have walked all over you," Cobb says to her beloved moon near the show's end. "I know how that feels."
"They Promised Her the Moon" runs through March 29 (showtimes vary) at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $35-$95. Go to theatreworks.org.
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