When Jayme McGhan was first approached about writing a story about Apollo 8, the first human spaceflight to orbit the moon, he hesitated. It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to write plays — he’s written lots of them. He just wasn’t as well versed in the particulars of a highpoint in the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
“Frankly I did not think I was the right fit,” he says. “I knew very little about NASA aside from what I saw on Apollo 13 in the late ’90s.” He also thought it was an event that has been well covered through the years in books, plays and films.
But Kevin Dean and Jake Speck of A. D. Players thought the project had merit and he was the right playwright to do it. They prevailed upon him to accept the commission a little over three years ago, but then came the pandemic, shutting down any thoughts of giving it a full staging. It is only this month that Apollo 8 will receive its world premiere at the George Theater.
As it turns out, in the interim the world underwent a lot of other changes with added geopolitical upheaval in the intervening years.
“Kind of on the back side of the pandemic we find ourselves in a very similar situation to 1968, a world kind of sitting on the edge a little bit with certainly major movements in civil rights and ethical treatment of American citizens. It mirrors 1968 almost perfectly,” says McGhan, who also, ironically enough, is taking over as Executive Artistic director of A.D. Players in the wake of the soon-to-be departed Speck, who has accepted the position of artistic director at Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville.
“That was not the intention. That was not remotely what we thought about when we started the process but here we are,” he says. He believes the play sends a hopeful message “that allows for the beginning of the healing process and to see ourselves a much broader almost more divine way if that makes sense.”
Directed by James Black, the cast includes Philip Kershaw, Sophie Lowe Christy Watkins, A.D. Players Artistic Producer and actor Kevin Dean, Jake Speck , Ric Hodgin, James Belcher, Nick Farco and Ciara Anderson. The design team includes of Kevin Rigdon, Clint Allen, Phillip Owen, Paige A. Willson and Charley Topper. — with the centerpiece of the design a 30-foot-tall projection screen that along with sound and lighting effects is designed to make audience members think there’s a rocket on stage.
The idea for the play came after Speck had taken his family to NASA and saw an exhibit about the Apollo 8 mission, McGhan says. “Specifically what drew him was the reading of Genesis from space on Christmas Eve, reading the first ten verses of Genesis. That was the initial impetus for him to start thinking about how could we dramatize this.”
McGhan plunged into research to prepare to write the play. “I was trying to get my head around the import of America taking this 50-50 chance; there’s an even chance that it’s an utter failure and these astronauts die or that America is able to circle a capsule around the moon. The brazen choice they made to do that. The gutsy effort to give America something to cheer for, really the world something to cheer for became really quickly an interesting piece of dramatic fodder for me.”
But while the technological achievement was massive and the vision a daring one, McGhan found himself thinking more about other aspects of the story.
“I became far more interested in the results of what the Apollo 8 mission meant to everyday people around the globe,” McGhan says. “It was the most watched broadcast in history at that time. People tuned in every night, across the globe.”
“Humans had seen Earth for the first time from a distance and had been able to get their sense of place in the cosmos. I think that people really did feel more connected. In talking to my grandparents for example they said it was absolutely a jaw dropping moment to see Earth in that way and to support these brave folks who had the audacity to take that 50-50 coin flip and make it happen.
“It’s not just a play about NASA, a lunar mission, about all the turmoil of 1968, it’s also about people coming into a place of reconciliation.”
Performances of Apollo 8 are scheduled for May 6 through June 5 (with preview performances May 4 and 5) at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at A.D. Players at The George Theater, 5420 Westheimer. For more information, call 713-526-2721 or visit adplayers.org. $25-$75.