In Grounded, currently at Manbites Dog Theater, an American Air Force fighter pilot tells an unusual story, constructing herself for us onstage as meticulously as a child building a model plane and dressing it in its paper skin patterned with the markings of its identify. From the moment we meet her until she metaphorically crashes and burns, The Pilot wears her flight suit. She’s not just a pilot, but a fighter pilot, an elite warrior. The Pilot is a Major and a hotshot, and feels her greatest happiness when alone with the blue, riding her “Tiger” through the vast blue sky. But getting pregnant changes all that.
George Brant’s 75-minute, one-woman play (2013) packs an enormous emotional and philosophical wallop in this production, which is directed by Talya Klein with Madeleine Lambert as The Pilot. Both women studied theater at Duke, and both went on to earn MFAs from Brown/Trinity Rep before launching theatrical careers. Together again at Manbites, they have made something almost unbearably intense. Klein’s adept pacing of Lambert’s engrossing, finely-calibrated performance keeps us alert and focused. The room is stripped to its black cinderblock walls. There’s a folding chair, a bottle of Pepsi. And video cameras. Under Andrew Parks’ excellent lighting that enlivens the spoken “action,” it is enough; enough for us to imagine the scenes limned by The Pilot as she spirals from power and personal freedom to a serf-like captivity, and madness.
The deeply personal quality of the story grabs you by the throat, and at the same time the playwright pushes multiple hot buttons, forcing you to contend mentally with macro-issues like like surveillance (“Everything will be witnessed!”) the military use of drones; the validity or not of the spate of desert wars; the place of a woman of childbearing age in the military; the invisible wounds of the warrior; the strange balance of procreation and death-dealing in the human race. It is quite a work-out. Brant has made his story up from these big issues and more, but they don’t stick out in lumps–they’re the girders of the story, and the story is told in order to reveal its structure. Brant is also skilled at piling several possible meanings onto a word, phrase or situation. Beginning with the play’s title, you must consider the simultaneous presence of multiple interpretations. Grounded is at once a fine piece of rhetoric, and an explosive drama.
The Pilot gets pregnant after some hot sex while on leave, and has to quit flying. She can’t bear to “kill” her baby. The father’s thrilled; they marry, and baby makes three. Now, The Pilot is never alone. After a suitable period, she returns to the Air Force after maternity leave, but instead of returning to the blue she craves, she’s assigned to a team guiding drones from a windowless trailer on a base in the desert outside Las Vegas. As she notes, she’s back to fighting the same war, but from a different desert. Nor is she any longer an action figure, her own heroine. She clocks in and out, and in between she’s a team player.
And, we are forced to realize, the new military is the same as the old: even though all bodily danger has been removed for the drone operators, all the mental poisons and traumas of war remain. They are only exacerbated by turning war into a kind of shift work with deleterious labor conditions. Now the “Chair Force” warriors must go home to spouses and families after a shift of war. No more decompressing with the guys after a mission–got to get home. In fact, there is never an end to the mission, just a change-off in the workers at the machine of war. I was particularly struck by the profligate cruelty of a military that would take people they’d spent a million dollars apiece training, people with psychological profiles close to that of Icarus, and enclose them in dark boxes where they would stare at gray video screens for 12 hours. How could the military planners not expect human breakage? Ahhh. They do. The hazards of war will always cause loss of personnel.
This remarkable piece of theatre continues at Manbites through April 5.