Modern drone warfare and its repercussions on the human psyche is at the core of “Grounded”, George Brant’s timely but static one-woman play currently onstage at the Westport Country Playhouse.
“Grounded” is the story of one ambitious female pilot (she is unnamed in the script), a fierce “top gun” for the air force who loves the freedom of being strapped into her “Tiger” and experiencing nothing but “the blue” all around her. When she finds herself pregnant then married, she is “grounded” for a few years until the pull of air flight becomes too great. Her new position, however, is not in the air but in a command center where she will operate one of the new, 11 million dollar drones that seek out various enemies across the globe. The pilot is not at all happy about being assigned to the “Chair Force”, as she calls it, missing the freedom of more hands-on flight. Still, she takes the position which means 12-hour days sitting in front of a computer screen, monumental boredom punctuated by occasional opportunities to destroy the enemy.
The boredom is, unfortunately, also inherent in the drama as the pilot repeatedly goes from her work to domestic life and back time and time again. The play (90 minutes without intermission) probes the moral ambiguity of this new technology and the toll it takes not only on the victims but on the people put in charge to make the decisions and carry out the action. You can see where “Grounded” is headed pretty soon after it begins as this capable, patriotic young woman is dismayed, then excited about “the kill” and then gradually begins to doubt what she is doing and why.
Directed with a firm hand by Liz Diamond and played with authority and verisimilitude by actress Elizabeth Stahlmann, “Grounded” is nonetheless repetitious and ultimately melodramatic with an ending telegraphed at least twenty minutes into the play. Performed on a mostly bare stage with a metal chair and steel backdrop (design by Riccardo Hernandez), the setting often resembles a padded cell and that may be the point especially when the play eventually wraps up.
There’s a sameness about “Grounded” that spins and spins it wheels but doesn’t actually go very far. I was reminded of the excellent 2015 Helen Mirren film, “Eye in the Sky” and a recent season of Showtime’s “Homeland” which both dealt far more compellingly with the issues of drone warfare. “Grounded” simply pales in comparison against these examples of far stronger and original storytelling.
There is dramatic use of lighting (Solomon Weisbard), sound (Kate Marvin) and especially projections (Yana Birykova) throughout “Grounded”, but the linear staging soon allows tedium to set in. Ms. Stahlman starts in a chair, walks right to indicate her home, walks left to go back to work. Sometimes she sits on the back of the chair with her legs on the seat. Other times she is behind the chair. You get the idea. I do not blame the actress or the director who are certainly both immensely talented. They are doing as well as can be expected given the material they’ve been handed.
“Grounded” continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through July 29. For further information or ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportcountryplayhouse.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org.