Stockyards Theatre Project

at the Athenaeum Theatre

The press release for Lunacy quotes Stephanie Nolen, author of Promised the Moon: The Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race. In a comment to the Stockyards Theatre Project Nolen says, “The story of America’s first female would-be astronauts is an important one that fell out of the history books–I’m glad to see it on the stage in Chicago today.” I would have been glad to see it too, but this “important” story is not the one Minnesota playwright Patricia Weaver-Francisco tells. In fact I learned more from the press kit than from her play.

Lunacy supposedly shows “the other side of The Right Stuff.” Weaver-Francisco describes her Women’s Theatre Project commission as “a full-length play based on the 13 women who trained for the space program in the 1960s and were abruptly dropped before having a chance to go into space.” Only it isn’t about the so-called Mercury 13. The women themselves appear in only one fleeting and absurd hallucinatory sequence: wearing black gowns and “Miss NASA” sashes, they merely introduce themselves and announce their readiness for space flight.

It’s a fact that these women, who passed the same tests as male astronaut candidates and in many cases bested them, became a mere footnote–if that–in space history. Still, Weaver-Francisco gives more stage time to John Glenn, the best known of the Mercury 7, than she does to these women, who were denied the chance to orbit the earth when the navy abruptly canceled their training program in 1961, just months after it started.

Of the 13–Jerrie Cobb, Bea Steadman, Janey Hart, Jerri Truhill, Rhea Allison Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jan and Marion Dietrich, Myrtle Cagle, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Jessen, Jean Hixson, and Wally Funk–only one is characterized in Weaver-Francisco’s “vision of what might have happened to one of these pioneering women”: Cobb, who now flies humanitarian aid missions to Central and South America and was once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was the most vocal, lobbying Congress for her turn in space. She also asked to have the military-jet-experience requirement waived for the women (after all, the academic requirement was waived for Glenn), but to no avail. This despite the fact that women were not allowed in military jet-pilot training programs until 1973.

Cobb has loosely inspired the character of Jean Cross, a somewhat bitter crone living alone in a desert dispensing spiritual wisdom, tending bonsai trees, talking to the stars, and spouting Greek myths. The media of the day (Imma J. Curl’s costumes suggest the 1980s) are buzzing with the news that scientist Martha Howland (apparently based on Sally Ride, who went into space in 1983) is about to take flight as America’s first solo female astronaut. But when a journalist seeks out Cross to ask her about the old days, Cross lives up to her name and grumpily turns her away. And we can’t really blame her since Corona Smith, who writes for a feminist paper and has set herself the task of reporting on all women who accomplish firsts no matter how mundane, is a truly inept and annoying person.

It turns out Howland is completely out of touch with the efforts of the women who’ve come before her and, in a bit of added drama, is suffering the loneliness and self-doubt common in depictions of successful career women of that decade. As she prepares for her flight she brims with confidence and ego, but once in space she becomes overwhelmed and disoriented. At this point the play’s realistic if routine story gives way to flights of fancy. Howland has a series of hallucinations, including one of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space (here reduced to a smiling, waving Barbie–though her single space flight, aboard Vostok 6 in 1963, involved more time in orbit than all the Mercury 7 astronauts had combined). Some of Howland’s other visitors are funny, particularly the dancing Pleiades and an abrasive Artemis, but many references are given with an astounding lack of context. If you didn’t already know that Maria Mitchell was an American astronomer in the mid-1800s, Weaver-Francisco isn’t about to tell you; she only provides the year that Mitchell died.

Rather than reclaiming women’s history with specific information about what it was like to be in this early program for female astronauts or giving us anything more than a cliched sense of the disappointment the Mercury 13 might have experienced, Weaver-Francisco revisits the tried-and-true feminist theme that we must learn from and appreciate our elders and their fight for progress.

Despite its didactic tendencies, this disappointing mess has plenty of comic elements. Along the way the playwright takes potshots at ideas of femininity during the 1960s, when the space race began in earnest, and at the insensitive, offensive things said about women in space well into the 1980s. Some of this is effectively silly–a trio of space hookers shimmies during a voice-over explaining that women might join a mission to Mars because the men would be looking for “sexual diversion.” But other times these ironic detours into fashion advice or instructions on how to appeal to a man take the play truly off course.

Directed by Katie Carey Govier, this production is sorely unfocused, and its attempts to keep the humor broad (no pun intended) leave the show as unhinged as an astronaut after the zero-gravity test (also known as the “vomit comet”). Most of the seven women in the nine-person ensemble play their roles to the point of histrionics while the two men in their bit parts are often bland.

Weaver-Francisco says in a program note that her play “is not intended to represent the actual lives or thoughts of the thirteen original women astronaut candidates.” The question is, why not? That play might have been far more interesting and entertaining than this one. Lunacy offers such a promising voyage that its failure to lift off is a real disappointment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Imma Curl.