If pilots were recreational drinkers, Jackie Cochran would've sloshed her male counterparts under the table by 10 p.m. and still have had room for a fifth of Jack. As it was, the WWII aviator bucked the era's sexist tide with her passions alone, having created a vital part of America's military effort of yore. Her Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program recruited the first American females to fly military aircraft, charged with personnel and supply transport to crucial U.S. checkpoints; a few even trained male pilots of B-17 bombers.
Cochran's life is the stuff of legend-legend usually reserved for our country's figureheads in medicine and sports and art. Thing is, you can't really prove it by playwright Jenny Laird. Her Sky Girls, the current show at the Old Globe Theatre's Cassius Carter Centre Stage, traces the lives of five fictional WASP recruits under Cochran's wing.
The role of Mags (an outstanding Sarah Rafferty) makes a terrific subplot as the blustery character holding forth as the conscience of the group. But the part is so strong that it overshadows the main character. And that happens a lot here. While we're busy learning about the recruits as intense and sexual beings, we're told too little of the people who brought them together. The imbalance leaves a hollow flavor to this well-produced entry.
Picture the anticipation surrounding the fateful Resurrection-and instead of ascending into heaven, Jesus hops a bus.
Prototypical feminist Cochran led a remarkable existence: a chicken thief, a would-be nurse who couldn't get past the sight of blood, a beautician, an Eisenhower democrat, a dancer, the first woman to break the sound barrier, a poker partner to no less than Jimmy Doolittle, a recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal and the holder of 69 aviation speed and distance records in her day. Her bottomless lust for the game of life swallowed everything in her path, hence the scorn surrounding her efforts in Washington to gain military status for WASP (the Sweetwater, Texas outfit was seen as part of the civil service, with the women paying for their own clothes and medical bennies).
Critical press and a cluster of good ol' boy agitators helped fuel congressional sentiment against Cochran's lobby; the feds dissolved WASP in 1944, two short years after its creation. But Sky Girls correctly paints Cochran (Judith Hawking) as undaunted. "I may have been born in a hovel," she once said, "but I determined to follow the wind and stars."
That overarching human side is slow to unfold-for that, we have to wait until the second act, when Cochran's Texas drawl finally stiffens in defense. Her protégé Bishop (a lukewarm, miscast Carolyn Stone) angrily chides Cochran for hawking the program out of ego assuagement. The transition's too quick, but Laird draws the exchange well, and it's nicely coached by director's director Brendon Fox on Russell Metheny's clever set.
Compare that scene with Mags' drunken diatribe about men or the wistfulness that marks Lil and DeLang (Breean Julian and Kristin Fiorella) or the sweet naïvete of Breeny (Jenni Lynn McMillin) as she accepts a marriage proposal. Without Cochran's larger-than-life specter, these and other interludes quickly take on lives of their own-and suddenly, a piece of Americana is lost underneath the cutesy affectations of a Moliere or an Oscar Wilde.
Twenty-five thousand women applied to WASP; barely 1,100 (including El Cajon's Joyce Secciani and Vivian Eddy of Coronado) survived the training. About 38 recruits died in aviation-related incidents. Their cause wasn't lost on President Carter, who granted the WASPs retroactive military status in 1979.
Cochran saw the day-the Florida native died in 1980 (records reflect her birth anywhere from 1906 to 1912). She asked to be buried with a sword given her by the Air Force Academy in case she had to fight her way out of hell.
That kind of talk embodies the extraordinary life behind it, insight into which Sky Girls doesn't quite supply.
This review is based on the performance of Jan. 17. Sky Girls runs through Feb. 15 at the Old Globe Theatre's Cassius Carter Centre Stage. $19-$52. 619-231-1941.