Passage Theatre Company is presenting Kaiulani Lee’s "A Sense of Wonder," a play about Rachel Carson and her fight for the environment, to say nothing of her fight for the rights of women to be taken seriously as scientists. Lee has been performing "A Sense of Wonder" for over ten years and has taken it to over 100 college campuses; she has also taken it to high schools, to a variety of conferences on conservation and education, as well as to prestigious organizations like the Smithsonian Institution and the United Nations. Lee is appalled by how little experience today’s students have with the outdoors. They no longer play outside, and to her this means that they do not grow up with a love of nature and are therefore not motivated to worry about its degradation. She sees her piece as a way to energize students to care about and fight for the environment.
Part of the appeal of "A Sense of Wonder" lies in the way Lee plays with theatrical conventions. She enters as herself and lays down some of the ground rules for the performance. There will be no intermission between the two acts, she tells us, but the lights will go down and she will rearrange the furniture. And there’s no need for anyone to come up on stage to help – she can do it alone. Then before she begins she describes the parts of the set that the audience doesn’t see. The play takes place at Carson’s cottage in Maine, and Lee shows where the outside door is, where the cliffs are, where it’s open sea.
For the rest of the play she is Rachel Carson. Although "A Sense of Wonder" begins toward the end of Carson’s life, Lee chronicles Carson’s path from student to biologist to editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to writer to crusader. Her books were successful, and royalties from "The Sea Around Us" made it possible for her to leave her job and work fulltime as a writer, which is what she had always wanted to do.
She had not planned to become a crusader, but she became alarmed by the indiscriminate use of DDT, and began working to alert the public to the connection between the chemical and cancer. DDT had been developed for emergency use in World War II and had not been intended for continuous or widespread application. Carson had not wanted to write a book about chemical dangers, and she started her now-famous "Silent Spring" only after she was unable to convince any other scientists or science writers (among them no less than E. B. White, the author of "Stuart Little" and "Charlotte’s Web") to take up the project.
Carson’s schedule for finishing "Silent Spring" was totally disrupted by the increasing amount of disturbing information she discovered. When she started, she had expected the book to be produced fairly rapidly; as it turned out she spent four and a half years on the research alone. In the meantime, she developed cancer. The radiation treatments sapped her energy and slowed the project further. As she put it, after reaching a stage in her career where she could do so much, her body faltered.
"Silent Spring" was published in 1962, and Carson was immediately attacked by the chemical industry. If her policies were followed, we would return to the Dark Ages, "and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth." But her work had made an impression, and she lived long enough to know that she had been listened to and that the Kennedy administration had begun working on the problem. After her death, governmental supervision of environmental matters increased sharply. (The EPA was founded after her death.) The use of DDT was banned in the United States, but today it can still be manufactured here and sold abroad. And there are, of course, newer pesticides and other chemicals that can do serious damage to the environment.
"A Sense of Wonder" is a major feature in a project new to this year’s Solo Flights Festival. Passage Theatre is participating in Greening – Natural Connections, Growing Community, a collaboration with seven local environmental organizations (the D&R Greenway, Friends of the Marsh, Isles, New Jersey Audubon, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, and the Stony Brook- Millstone Watershed Association). The consortium is presenting more than 15 special events ranging from a children’s art workshop to a woodcock watch to canoeing the Hamilton-Trenton-Bordentown Marsh to a spring potato planting. "A Sense of Wonder" is of course a major contribution to Greening, since for many, Carson was the single most important force in creating an effective American environmental movement.
This year’s Solo Flights Festival includes ten solo acts – one-person plays, dance programs by the Alborada Spanish Dance Theatre and the Nimbus Dance Works, a "symphonic exploration" by Vince di Mura, and a monologue with hip-hop vocal percussion.
After the final curtain of "A Sense of Wonder," Lee comes on again as herself, and once again theatrical conventions are monkeyed with. Most of the questions on opening night dealt not with Carson or points in the play but with environmental issues more generally. Almost all of the questions were more like those asked after a lecture than like those asked after a theater piece. But perhaps this means that Lee has achieved much of what she set out to do – she has told a story that is dramatically compelling, and she has also made her audience think about the environmental implications and what those implications mean for the future of life on earth.
"A Sense of Wonder," Thursday through Saturday, March 27 to 29, 8 p.m., Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Presented by Kaiulani Lee, a story about Rachel Carson, environmentalist and author of "Silent Spring." $40. 609-392-0766.