For the past sixteen years, actress Kaiulani Lee has been performing her one-woman show A Sense of Wonder that depicts the final months of environmentalist Rachel Carson. Lee’s beautifully riveting performance has been captured on film and is making the rounds around the nation. It premièred in DC last week as a part of the 2009 Environmental Film Festival and never have I seen the National Portrait Gallery’s McEvoy auditorium packed to its wooden gills.
Rachel Carson is perhaps best remembered for her controversial 1962 best-seller Silent Spring, a poetic exposé on the devastating effects of pesticides—notably DDT—on the environment as well as on human health. The bigwigs of America’s chemical industry were not amused and did their best to discredit her work. But, with a master’s in zoology and years working as editor in chief of publications for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson’s credentials held some serious clout. (President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee eventually backed her work, giving her a bullet proof air of credibility.) Although she died from breast cancer in 1964, her work had a considerable ripple effect. This includes sparking the environmentalist movement of the late 1960s and launching the campaign to ban the use of DDT. (It was officially banned by the Environmental Protection Agency— established in 1970 as the first independent federal organization to ensure the United States’ environmental well being—in 1972.)
Actress Kaiulani Lee spent over three years studying Carson’s life and work before before composing and starring in her one-woman show, A Sense of Wonder. Pulling off a one-person anything requires an intensely magnetic personality—and Lee brings this to the table in spades. Her performance is one of quiet exuberance that communicates Carson's deeply-rooted love of the natural world. And, with about 80 percent of the show's dialogue being culled from Carson's writing, it's an excellent introduction to the environmentalist's life and legacy.
If you missed the screening at the Portrait Gallery, the film is touring the nation. (Go to the official site and click "Screenings" to see if the film will be playing near you.) However, two portraits of Carson are currently on view at the Portrait Gallery: a bust (pictured above) by Una Hanbury can be found in the 20th Century Americans gallery and a photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt is displayed in the New Arrivals exhibition area. For more insight on Kaiulani Lee and her work on A Sense of Wonder, watch this 2007 interview with Bill Moyers.