‘Grounded’ goes beyond the blue

By Dale Scrivenger
Special to The PREVIEW

Award-winning playwright George Brant’s “Grounded” is a searing one-woman play which achieves many things, artistically and politically. It asks questions, it thrills with a finely crafted narrative, it offers insights. But what it does, most impressively, is put a face on modern warfare.

An unnamed fighter pilot tells the audience about her life as “top gun”; she loves “the blue” and the rush and power that her job brings. When she discovers she’s pregnant, she’s taken out of the sky and put on maternity leave. Everything in her life is perfect — the perfect daughter and the perfect partner — but she misses “the blue” and needs to return to the Air Force.

When she does, she discovers that she won’t be returning to the cockpit. She’s to be part of the “chair force,” as one of the officers who pilot military Reaper drones safe from the comfort of an air-conditioned caravan on a military base. She spends 12 hours a day staring at a gray screen, piloting aircraft thousands of miles away, before returning home to her partner and new daughter every night. She feels power and authority as the “eye in the sky,” able to see all happening below. But, soon enough, the job begins to take its toll.

Brant has found the human drama in a situation which is so deliberately separated from human emotion. He tells a new war narrative, which is miles apart from our traditional conceptions of the frontline of battle. What if Odysseus had returned home from war every night for dinner? “The Odyssey” would have been a very different story, the pilot says.

Laura Moore is the unnamed pilot. She’s compellingly powerful in the opening of the play, bringing the swagger of a “top gun.” When the trauma and stress and disorientating forces of her job take hold, Moore takes the audience through her entire downfall, step by step and moment by moment. She’s been pushed too far, but this is no histrionic portrayal of mental illness; it’s a finely drawn portrait of a mind taken to the edge. She delivers one of the greatest performances you’re likely to see on this or any other stage this year: raw, nuanced and heart-wrenchingly visceral.

Director Tim Moore has stripped back the production to a raw minimum and, with Laura Moore, has created a textured and well-paced performance. Lighting designer Amanda Heath has created a virtual playground for Laura Moore to perform within. It could be the interior of the caravan, it could be an aircraft hangar, or it could be “the blue.” Sound and projection designer Brian Freeland has provided an eerie and atmospheric soundscape, along with incredible imagery that takes you right into the pilot’s eye and beyond.

The play runs 80 minutes with just one woman on a blank stage, but it feels much shorter. Brant’s script shines in the details, but it’s as streamlined and as efficient as the drones he’s writing about. It offers a glimpse into a world behind closed doors; a world where the language of policy obscures the reality of a situation. It never feels overtly political because the story is so personal, but Brant grapples with big questions in the minutiae. We all know what a drone is, we all know what it does and, basically, how it operates. But how many of us know what it actually means? Modern warfare is a bit of a mystery, but we deserve to know what’s being done in our name. “Grounded” is unmissable theater at its best.

Discretionary warning: This play contains strong language, some sexual content and descriptions of violence and may not be appropriate for children.

“Grounded” opens the 2016-217 season at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts Friday, Oct. 14, and shows on select dates through Oct. 29. For more information or tickets, call 731-SHOW or visit www.pagosacenter.org.

This story was posted on October 15, 2016.