In the ambitious They Promised Her the Moon, playwright Laurel Ollstein explores a relatively untold chapter of American history. Solidly written but unsatisfyingly structured as a clunky series of flashbacks, confrontations and historical exposition, the play snaps to life in its final scenes. There the Salieri versus Mozart-style rivalry of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus that has developed between the two antagonistic central figures is heightened.
Ms. Quaid plays Geraldyn (“Jerrie”) M. Cobb (1931- ). Ms. Cobb was born and raised in Oklahoma, and became fascinated with aviation as a child. By the age of 18, she had a commercial pilots license and steadily became prominent in the field. In 1962, she completed the initial requirements of the non-NASA space program that chose the first seven Mercury astronauts.
Due to sexism, the women were eventually not allowed in space. There was a congressional hearing on the matter with John Glenn testifying against women’s inclusion, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson declined to offer support. A year later, the Russian Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.
Ms. Cobb’s later career saw her spending 30 years flying humanitarian missions in South America, for which she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981. In 1999, she was refused entry into the NASA program to study the effects of being in space and aging. John Glenn was a participant.
With appealing girlishness, Quaid marvelously offers a spunky characterization of a great woman heroically battling the odds. She vivaciously brings energy and focus to this rambling play with her magnetic performance.
Tall, lean and commanding, the luminous Ms. Nichols portrays Jacqueline Cochran (1906-1980). As a distinguished aviator, Ms. Cochran trained hundreds of women pilots to fly for the U.S. Air Force during W.W. II. Due to her husband’s wealth, she was a private sponsor of the Mercury program and was involved in selecting potential women astronauts, as she was considered too old to be one herself.
Nichols looks and sounds like a patrician dynamo with her athletic physique and immensely resonant voice. She dominates her scenes with her powerful presence.
The rest of the talented cast is comprised of Edmund Lewis, Polly McKie, John Russell and John Leonard Thompson.
Unfortunately, they’re stuck with playing a variety of characters each that are thinly written. Kindly father, cranky mother, officious official, devious John Glenn is among the stock figures speedily depicted. At one point they’re all dressed in trench coats and fedoras, appearing as old-time newspaper reporters.
Director Valentina Fratti’s staging is routine and doesn’t add much crackle to the numerous scenes and their transitions. Jennifer Harmon’s excellent choreography adds some needed aesthetic imagery.
Graham Kindred’s artfully minimal scenic design is a perfect landscape for the production. A hardwood floor with small wooden platforms is creatively used to represent the many locales. The stage is configured as a semi-oval with blue rectangular panels on the walls where atmospheric images of stars and clouds are periodically projected. Mr. Kindred’s lighting design vividly conveys the dimension of the passage of time, various locations and the sense of flight with its strong visual variances.
The pulsing sound design by Margaret Montagna skillfully modulates the tones of planes flying, celestial sequences and machinery.
From classic leather flight jackets, to basic military wear and 1940’s homespun garments, Tristan Raines’ splendid costume design richly realizes the large collection of characters.
Though Ollstein’s well-researched treatment is marred by shaky dramaturgy, They Promised Her the Moon does have two sensational performances and a fascinating plot.
They Promised Her the Moon (through May 27, 2017)
The Miranda Theatre Company
Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.mirandatheatrecompany.com
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission