Actress Kaiulani Lee’s one-woman show, A Sense of Wonder, presented the life and work of Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and a nature writer. The performance was simple, enhanced by its minimal stage props and fluid monologues. Lee’s decades of experience in plays, sitcoms and movies have allowed her to produce an endearing testimony of Carson’s life and achievements.
Lee’s monologues are almost entirely made of Carson’s own words. This allowed the audience an intimacy with Carson’s identity and her specific concerns. Lee gave a believable delivery, and made it impossible for the audience to tell the difference between Carson and herself. Lee’s personal presence was only conspicuous when she described the setting of Carson’s summerhouse in Maine. Clearly, Lee has meticulously studied Carson’s work and has identified with it in a way that brings Carson’s character to life.
The play takes place a year after Carson’s most controversial book, Silent Spring, was released in 1962. She is a writer, and we see her doing so in the majority of the play as Lee struggles to write letters and speeches. In the first act we learn that Carson’s success as a writer and biologist is not her primary concern. She raised her great-nephew, Roger, as her son, and worried about his happiness more than her own. “If I could,” she said, “I would give every child a sense of wonder to shield them from the boredom of older years.” This was one of the most poignant lines that Lee delivered in the play.
Just as Carson was a loving parent to Roger, Lee’s character acknowledges the support her mother gave her during her childhood. As a child, she learned the names of every bird and flower in her backyard. Carson’s mother was the reason why she began loving nature, and she also pushed Carson to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. However, Carson was not satisfied with her mother’s explanation that God made everything the way it was intended to be. Carson’s response to this was, “How?”
Attempting to answer that question, Carson studied biology and zoology in college and graduate school, respectively. After graduating, she created a balance between working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries during the day and writing about biology at night. She published three books and watched as her life was thrust into the spotlight. Her fourth book, Silent Spring, warned against the effects of the pesticide Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane (DDT) during a time when it could be used without regulations. “Why weren’t we warned of their dangers?” Carson wondered. Her duties as a mother to Roger extended to the natural world as she used her writing to expose the dangers of DDT to unintended targets in ecosystems.
Although Carson was not religious like her mother was, she did not agree with men playing the role of God. “We accept that end as natural – for ourselves, that measure is something else, the measure of which we cannot tell,” she said. Her criticisms of DDT extended to humans’ disrespect for natural order. She was harshly criticized in return, considered a fanatic by some, and a liar by others.
There were also positive responses to Carson’s work. Within 10 years of the publication of Silent Spring, DDT was banned in the U.S. Unfortunately, Carson did not live to see this come to pass. One of her last thoughts was, “Who will be my voice?” Lee’s performance left the audience with the impression that it is up to us students to be the voices of dissent. If “the aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth,” the power is in our hands, regardless of whether we are writers or scientists.