Kaiulani Lee’s enthralling one woman show was one of the most engrossing hours I have ever experienced. Lee’s piece, A Sense of Wonder, is based on the life and works of Rachel Carson, best known for Silent Spring, which awakened individuals and the government to the dangerous side effects of the use of certain chemicals, including DDT. These chemicals had been used against foes in World War II but had never been tested for either agricultural or home use.
Carson, a highly trained scientist, writer and poet, rose as a prominent author with her second book, The Sea Around Us, which remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks after its publication in 1950. She said that the study of science made a literary life possible because science was the subject. Carson argued that science and literature aim to discover and elucidate the truth even through there is little interaction between the two. Her three books about the sea required prose and poetry because there are certain things about the sea environment that can only be captured through poetry.
In presenting A Sense of Wonder, Lee used an acting method introduced in the early 20th century. The method has the actors coming to the stage with their real personalities and slowly sinking into the characters’. Lee’s 22 years of performing A Sense of Wonder, which she also wrote, made this process appear seamless.
Lee painted wonderful visuals with her words and motions. She first describes Carson’s cabin in Maine, perched on the shoreline surrounded on two sides by thick forest and two sides by the coast, one of which had a long rock spit jutting from it. The sets were very simple — in the first act they consisted of a writing chair and table with two small bookshelves behind. Lee also set a specific time frame with date, time of day, and the fact that it was one month after the publication of Silent Spring in 1962. Carson, after many delays, is finally packing up her belongings to return to Silver Spring, MD for the winter season. She knew it would be her last time in the cabin — she had been diagnosed with rapidly progressing cancer.
After the publication of Silent Spring, Carson became a pariah in the scientific community and found it difficult to obtain more scientific information. One professor who sent her his data was summarily fired. He was only re-hired when all the other science professors at the university threatened to quit.
The reception by the Federal Government was quite different. President Kennedy commissioned a Presidential Advisory Panel which supported her findings. Soon after, legislative committees began drafting environmental legislation.
Everywhere possible, Lee used Carson’s own words, including the memorable quote, “I believe that natural beauty has an essential place in development of a person or a society. This is especially important as we try to replace nature with man-made things.”
Lee was given most of Carson’s notes and diaries by Carson’s editor, Paul Brooks. When Lee ran into trouble integrating an understanding of Carson’s life with what she produced, Brooks sent her one last piece of Carson’s writing, “The subject chooses the writer.”
A Sense of Wonder is packed with the results of both deep thinking and musings presented in a context that allows for easy and clear understanding of Carson’s goals and world-view. How wonderful that Lee, an Obie and Drama Desk Award winner with many other screen and stage plaudits, can tell such a subtle and personal story.
The story of Rachel Carson and the development of A Sense of Wonder is so marvelous that I could write pages about the content of the play and Lee’s additional remarks. Instead, I refer you to the PBS-taped performance which can be found for sale here.
This year, George Mason University School of Theater is presenting three productions as part of The STEAM Table at Mason. All three productions in this constellation have female authors and feature the integration of the Arts and Humanities with the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) in an effort to encourage an open conversation between the two, often disparate, groups.
The first play, Kaiulani Lee’s, A Sense of Wonder was enthralling. The remaining plays in the STEAM Table at Mason are In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play from February 26 – March 1 and An Experiment with an Air Pump from March 26 – April 4.
Running Time: One hour including pre-and post-performance discussions.
A Sense of Wonder film information found on Kaiulani Lee’s website.
Rachel Carson website.
In the Moment: George Mason University Gets STEAMED by David Siegel.