"Grounded:" A pilot's dramatic arc, into and out of the blue
By Mal Vincent
March 10, 2016
Call it a play or a monologue, “Grounded” is a theatrical evening that represents a bold commercial risk for the Virginia Stage Company.
It has been billed as being about a woman Air Force pilot who steers killer drones from a windowless post in the desert outside Las Vegas. From there, she can kill targets anywhere in the world. Worries that it might be a feminist or antiwar diatribe are unfounded.
This psychological, analytical work is the VSC’s finale at the Wells Theatre for a while, until after renovations are done. “Grounded” is not a typical crowd-pleaser . In New York, it drew attention at the Public Theater when movie star Anne Hathaway did the role, and it ran for four months or so.
“Grounded” is best when it is small. Playwright George Brant is not interested in making expansive statements about the world’s new war machines. Nor is he on a platform about women’s right to die at war as freely as men. Rather, he is interested in this one woman and the effect that isolation and impersonal killing have on her and on her marriage. We become interested, too.
Kate MacCluggage, in the role of the pilot, delivers a performance that is to be admired more for its technique than for its passion. She plays it as it is written. Her pilot has spunk and self-determination that bring her close to cynicism at points, but never quite there. Brant’s writing is unique in that this character does not analyze herself, yet she provides ample clues, and overabundant metaphors, for us to do the work.
Predominant among the symbols are the colors. She adores and worships “the blue” – the sky through which she soared on military flights above Iraq. It is her world, one she never wanted to leave. Her fall from the blue was caused by an unexpected pregnancy that left her relegated to “the chair force” in an office where she can kill from afar .
She loves her child, or so she tells us, but also resents the “pink” represented by raising a wee one. She dislikes the pink ponies her daughter insists upon playing with.
She is most threatened by the “gray,” the somber, muted world she sees through multimillion-dollar killing equipment supplied by the government . The little screen she watches on her 12-hour shifts turns the desert sands and the humans she spies on into gray. As bodies die, they become the same shade as the sand.
MacCluggage, directed deftly by Chicago-based Laley Lippard, captures the arc of this woman – from cocky and macho to maternal to mad.
When we meet her, she’s in love with her uniform and her life and achievements as a pilot. Then she loves Eric, though it’s clear that he is secondary to her real love: the blue. She casually comments that he may trade her in for a younger model. Her daughter presents a different kind of love, stronger, in its way, than even her love for the blue.
When she’s sent to the “chair force” to operate drones, she welcomes the fact that it is a much safer way to wage war. The threat of death is gone, along with the visceral thrill of flying. She can go home at the end of each shift to see her husband and daughter, but life becomes a numbing routine as she herself becomes a drone. She’s a cold number, but she knows the pitfalls.
The part requires an actress who is analytical rather than showy.
The unique thing here is that MacCluggage never resorts to melodramatics. The actress is disciplined at all times in keeping her character restrained to the point of hiding from us the turmoil that is brewing. She is perhaps too successful, because the character’s downfall arrives much too suddenly and leads to a limited finale that comes perilously close to a sermon.
It would be nice to see this actress play Medea or Maggie the Cat, if only to see her get a chance to cut loose.
The set, credited to Terry S. Flint, makes us feel as if we are tunneling backward. (Or is it forward?) But the video projections, designed by Sarah Tundermann, struck me as superfluous – as if someone were playing an extremely slow video game in the background. These abstracts, even in the tone of the threatening gray, do not add much.
The work needs a more gradual buildup to the downfall, but perhaps I say that only because it would make me more comfortable. This is one of those evenings in which you just get up and quietly pass out of the theater. “Grounded” is involving and disturbing, though not a stunner. At just 85 minutes, it is a unique piece of theater.