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Women lift women in ‘They Promised Her the Moon’

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“It is fascinating and horrifying – that there are stories about women that we don’t know. There are so many women who did unbelievable things. And those are just not the stories we were told.”

Laurel Ollstein, on They Promised Her the Moon

Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb was arguably America’s first and finest female astronaut. She held world records for speed, altitude and distance. Dubbed a “trailblazing aviation pioneer” by the National Aviation Hall of Fame, she finished in the top 2% (of men and women) in all physical and psychological test batteries. She relentlessly lobbied the government into investigating whether NASA was discriminating on the basis of sex: Spoiler alert: It was.

And yet – we don’t know her.

Playwright Laurel Ollstein, the award-winning writer of “They Promised Her the Moon,” confessed to being drawn to stories of accomplished and complicated women. She is also passionate about telling stories that were never before told.

Cobb’s story was certainly told, but only in a selectively glossy way. She was widely covered in the media but with a generous dollop of sexism. Time swooned over the “first astronautrix” who had more airtime — over 7,500 hours — than any of the male astronauts of the time, yet Time couldn’t help but add her “measurements: 36-27-34” to its story.

Despite the brave fight, Jerrie was denied an opportunity to go into space. National gem, astronaut John Glenn, freshly back from orbiting in space, attempted to offer an explanation. At the congressional hearing in 1962 Glenn argued: “Men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes … The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.”

At the post-show reception on opening night, multi award-winning director Giovanna Sardelli told us that she wished — almost hoped — that the relevance of the story would fade away. She was saddened that this narrative burns ever more relevant, every passing day. Whilst most of us are content posting hash-tagged motivation on International Women’s Day, few stop to analyze and question the painful chapters in women’s history.

In “They Promised Her the Moon,” Sardelli and Ollstein bring us this pain but in an easily digestible, comically effervescent, heart-warming way. How is that even possible? I wondered. Much of the answer is in the effortless friendship between the two remarkable creators of this production. Sardelli and Ollstein met through the Old Globe’s New Voices Festival and have since been working together on the show for the past two years. 

In this newest production from TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, astronaut-protagonist Cobb is compellingly played by debutant Sarah Mitchell, who channels Cobb’s off-and-on ground exploits with athletic grace. She was every bit as believable as a shy but firm Cobb in a dress in front of the Congress as she was in her oversized flying suit, giggling and flying the Piper J-3 Cub.

Craig Marker smoothly transitions between portraying John Glenn’s slimy machismo and the flirtiness of Jack Ford, a flight transport guy who takes an immediate interest in young Cobb and becomes a mentor/lover. Anthony Fusco shines as Randy Lovelace, lead of the Women in Space Program, also called Mercury 13. The chemistry between a mentor and mentee never sizzled as much as it does between Cobb and the legendary pilot Jackie Cochran — played to perfection by Stacy Ross. In many ways, this show is the story of these two women.

There is plenty of impressive gadgetry and lighting in the production. The story alternates between Cobb’s long and suffocating stay in the isolation tank and flashbacks of her life. I chuckled at some cool automated rigs that were in play during the show. 

When I spoke with Ollstein ahead of the opening, she reminded me of the continuing significance of this story: “If you remember the Mercury 7 guys you will remember: They all looked alike. Identical.” I cracked up at this but only because the image conjured up in my mind is that of a typical corporate board, bulk of our Supreme Court justices (but we have Ruth Bader Ginsburg so we can’t complain) or indeed any political aggregation.

On opening night, the end of “They Promised Her the Moon” received a standing ovation that I thought continued past mere politeness. Remarkable, given the visceral reaction it evokes portraying the injustices of the time. But it also brings satisfaction that yet another bold story was told. By two women no less.

Contact Anupriya Dwivedi at adwivedi ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Anupriya is a Masters student at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford. Similar to her portfolio life, career and interests, her contributions to the Daily are also a motley combination of Arts & Life (Music, Culture and Theatre), Sports Photography and some News. Anupriya has moved to Stanford from Switzerland, where she was working as a strategy consultant. She has also been a feature writer for The Times of India, has published thought pieces on banking, culture and strategy and even won a National science fiction writing competition. Her writing wildly oscillates between the formality derived from her academic life (Neuroscience at the University of Oxford as a Commonwealth Scholar) and an irreverence from her culture soaked lifestyle in London and Zurich. When she's not attending theatre premieres in Palo Alto, or buried in GSB work, she also contributes to popular science journals or writes geeky policy memos.