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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Sense of Wonder’ reveals real Rachel Carson

Published: September 16, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc., Top Stories

Before seeing the one-woman play “A Sense of Wonder,” I knew only a few things about Rachel Carson; I’d heard of her most famous book, “Silent Spring,” and had even been to a wildlife sanctuary named after her. I essentially knew she wrote about something involving birds, wildlife and the effects of DDT. But I never knew about Carson the person—that she had a son, wanted to major in English but ended up switching to biology or battled cancer. I was pleasantly surprised by “A Sense of Wonder” because it didn’t just recap Carson’s written works; it painted a portrait of the woman behind the book.

“A Sense of Wonder” is a one-woman play, created and performed by Kaiulani Lee. She has performed this play for 21 years, traveling to many schools and universities along the way. The first act is set in Carson’s summer home in Maine in 1963. The second is set two months later in her winter home in Maryland. While the first act explores Carson’s personal life, the second discusses the impact of “Silent Spring” and her reaction to it. Carson never set out to write “Silent Spring,” but it eventually became a four-year labor of love that became an unlikely phenomenon that thrust her into the public eye.

“A Sense of Wonder” is a short play, yet it covers a lot of ground. It mostly presents Carson’s own words; Lee stitched together pieces of Carson’s journals, letters and speeches to create a coherent illustration of the scientist. It describes not only how Carson’s book brought the familiar lawsuits by chemical companies but also how her mother was the first to teach her about nature and how she was condemned for not showing up to important environmental events when, in reality, she was battling cancer. Each cursory fact I knew about Carson unearthed another I didn’t yet know. The play was not only scientifically educational but revealed Carson’s basic humanity. Carson was not just a “priest-like” scientist; she was also a mother, nurturing and willing to put her family above all else. The victory of “A Sense of Wonder” is not only the beauty of the monologues but also how Carson, as a person, emerges.

Before seeing “A Sense of Wonder,” I believed that one-man plays could easily become dry, even after the first monologue. Seeing Lee’s play changed that opinion. I never realized a one-woman play could become so intimate; I felt as though she were talking to me and me alone.

As a performer, Lee is a master at sinking into Carson’s skin. She speaks slowly but thoughtfully, just as Carson’s books maneuver. At the question-and-answer session after the play, I had to remind myself time and time again that Lee was not actually Rachel Carson. In speaking about her own life, Lee describes that, after hearing about global warming, she wanted to do something for the environment. She had grown up with Carson’s books and longed for other people to value Carson the way she did. After assessing her life, Lee decided the best way to make an impact was through her own medium of theater, and set out to write and perform in a play about Carson.

Carson valued her privacy and “A Sense of Wonder” is not an invasion of it. It celebrates her life, her works and the woman she was. Lee was one of the people who brought Carson back into the public eye and helped get her books back in print. The public eye is exactly where Carson should stay. Her book made a difference: It led to environmental reform and helped wildlife and people alike. Lee channels Carson in such a way that she is brought back to life, here once again to teach the world a lesson it still sorely needs to learn.