Grounded – Review by Tom Nissley

I didn’t really like “Grounded,” but that’s OK; it wasn’t put there to like – more to disturb. On a shallow stage, backed by a solid wall of foil (to represent an Air Force Base Hanger?), Elisabeth Stahlmann, directed by Liz Diamond, describes what it was like for her to fly a powerful plane way, way, high into the blue sky and then pinpoint a target below and hit it with accuracy before turning home. Best job, best thrill of her life. Different from the rest of her life, which had lonely moments. When she said, “I’m a pilot – I fly high” at a bar, for instance, attractive men faded into the distance. But then she met Eric, who didn’t fade away. He liked that she flew high, and they coupled.

On her next mission, she noticed that her uniform was getting tight around the waist, and that she was having bouts of sickness. Yep, pregnant. How would she tell Eric? But it turned out that he was thrilled, and proposed. So they married and she took time off to have a baby girl. After just enough time at home she reported again for duty, only to learn that her mission from now on was to pilot a drone from the comfort of an office in Las Vegas. They moved to Nevada, at first Eric stayed home. She commuted every day and came home every night. But she missed – ached for – her plane. Wanted it. Hated being in what she called the “Chair-Force.” Never really adjusted to being fully grounded, even though the technology that needed her now was the face of the future.

By this point in the play all sorts of questions have popped into the audience’ imagination. Should she calm her crazy emotions? Should she stay home and raise her daughter? Should she be in the Air Force at all? Should women fly planes? Can drones replace planes? What does it do to a mission when the bell sounds quitting time and another pilot takes over? What do we know about this new technology? What don’t we know? Brant has brought us this far, and very much intends for us to go even deeper.

Meanwhile the foil covered wall turns out to be perfect for projections of flight instruments and web cams reaching down to the target. We are watching a search for one particular champion within Isis? Just for a minute it looks like he has entered a car and driven away. The mission is over. But just as suddenly his car stops, and a small child runs out to get or give a hug. He leaves the car and embraces the child. Possibly his daughter. The camera focuses – homes in on her face. But no, no, no, she looks like, so much like, the pilot’s own daughter. Confusion reigns. And the drone does not drop its bomb. It zooms instead up, up into the blue.

A short while later the play has ended, but the awkward suspense doesn’t go away. We will never see drones the same way, never focus on bombs without also focusing on children. Damn the whole business. And the playwright and the set (Riccardo Hernandez), the lighting (Solomon Weisbard), the sound (Kate Marvin), the vivid projections (Yana Birykova). It’s solidly disturbing. The play won prizes at Edinburgh Fringe  and other places. It will be made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway.

I would have preferred to encounter “Grounded” in a smaller theater. I think its intimacy loses power in a large venue. In Westport, we have seen this production. In a smaller theater, we might have felt it even more, and ingested it more thoroughly. But it’s a powerful piece, worth taking in.

Tickets and information at www.westportplayhouse.org, or 203-227-4177

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