George Brant’s searching and provocative one-woman play, “Grounded,” is receiving a superb production at Westport Country Playhouse through July 29th. Brant’s play engages with the moral complexities of drone warfare, but its real subject is the particular madness that this kind of killing inflicts on our own soldiers, be they men or women. In “Grounded” (the title of which could not be more painfully ironic) an unnamed military pilot is reassigned from the air force, which she has loved, to what she contemptuously calls the “chair-force,” with harrowing psychological consequences. And director Elizabeth Diamond has found an actress, Elizabeth Stahlmann, to play this Pilot, who is nothing less than astonishing.
The Pilot tells her own story in a taut ninety minutes. In the story’s opening, she is cocky to the point of a delighted (and delightful) arrogance. She defines herself completely by her military role; is enamored of her plane, “Tiger”; and is captivated by “the blue” that surrounds their missions—missions that she celebrates for their physical thrill above all else. There is little talk here about killing, about the enemy, or even about war.
When The Pilot meets Eric, who—unlike other men—is as turned on by her power as she is—she becomes pregnant, falls in love, and marries him. After her maternity leave, she eagerly returns for duty, but the tactics of engaging the enemy have shifted. Tiger is obsolete, and instead, The Pilot must operate a drone: she has no choice but to exchange “the blue” for “the gray” of a screen, working twelve hour daily shifts, punctuated by brief evenings and mornings with her husband and daughter. What follows is a wholly original character study, and Stahlmann, alone on the stage with a chair, a background, and projections, leads us masterfully through the play’s arc.
Stahlmann is markedly beautiful, but as The Pilot, she exudes strength, toughness, and raw sexual appeal. Aided by Ron Carlos, as voice coach, she creates a completely believable Wyoming woman, nailing the accent without overplaying it and always maintaining crystalline diction. In sharp, perfectly delineated vignettes, she uses her lithe body to create every moment and person she describes. Stahlmann radiates playfulness and warmth, especially at the beginning of the play, while at the same time conveying the watchfulness and coiled energy of a panther on the prowl. And when her energy moves into darker modes, she shows us every emotional shift. This performance is a tour de force.
Liz Diamond’s production is brilliantly realized on every level. Her work with Stahlmann is invisible, as is the best directing, yet their collaboration shines. And the designers for this production are remarkable. “Grounded” can be done very simply, but that is a trap, and Diamond knows it. From the metal backdrop (Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez), and the subtle but eloquent lighting by Solomon Weisbard, to Kate Marvin’s sound design and Yana Birÿkova’s beautiful and chilling projections, this “Grounded” creates a world from which we cannot escape, any more than can our Pilot.
“Grounded” engages with unanswerable and disturbing questions about our use of drones and also about the broader reality of constant surveillance, whether or not we are at war. But even more importantly, it tells a human and singular story. And that story, as expertly portrayed here, will leave you transformed.
“Grounded” runs through July 29. For tickets or more information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.