By Karen Isaacs
War is getting both more remote and more personal. In the last century, we have moved from being able to see the faces of those a soldier is about to kill to them becoming simply “targets” for long-distance equipment. But with drones, we are moving back to being able to see and identify who is about to be killed.
That is at the root of the play Grounded which is now at Westport Country Playhouse through July 29.
The 100 minute, one woman show introduces us to “the pilot” – a female major who flies F-16s on bombing missions in the Middle East. She is confident, sassy and at home in the male-dominant culture. She loves flying and has a deep connection to “her” plane. Home on leave, she has some drinks one night and is impressed with the civilian (Eric) who makes his way through the group of pilots to talk to her. One thing leads to another and they spend several days together. Back on duty, she realizes she is pregnant.
Flying would be dangerous and she is transferred home.
She marries the man and they have a daughter. Now what was confusing, is it seems that several years pass, but there is no mention of her military assignment or duties during that period. It seems that after three years, her commander tells her she will be flying again. She is ecstatic until she learns that she won’t be flying a plane but will be sitting at a desk stateside (in Nevada) manipulating or “flying” a drone. She will be, in military slang, part of the “chair force.”
So, the pilot, her husband and her daughter, Samantha, pack up and move to Nevada. She works 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week. That also seemed a bit much – no time off at all!
Her days are spent looking at grey bits on a screen with “her team” that includes a young man next to her and others who communicate through her headset. They tells her what to follow, when to zoom in, and when to release the bombs. At the beginning she is following convoys looking for individuals who might be planting mines or bombs in the road. When she finds one, the voices in her ear tell her if they have determined the people to be “guilty” which usually means they are male of military age. She then destroys them.
After a time, she and the others on the team (which operates 24 hours a day) are following a car supposedly carrying the number 2 man. He is a prime target. And it seems as though they track him for days or weeks, yet he never exits the vehicle. He needs to do that so they can be sure of their identification – he limps.
As these days stretch on, The Pilot becomes more and more vested in “getting him” and not wanting the other pilot to do so. But she also finds it harder and harder to block out the blips on the grey screen that she watches daily. The transition from work to home becomes more and more difficult.
I don’t want to reveal what occurs except to say that the remote control war takes a very heavy toll on her. It’s not clear what the results totally are or why, which is a failing of playwright George Brant.
Grounded is not a new play; it was written in 2013 and has received numerous productions all over the world including an off-Broadway production starring Anne Hathaway. It has also won numerous awards.
But I am hard pressed to think any of these 100+ productions could have a better performance as The Pilot than that given by Elizabeth Stahlmann. She brings to the role all that you would expect from the character. Even though there is little movement and no props, your eyes and ears are riveted on her. She shows us the conflicts, the emotions and the enthusiasms of this woman.
Liz Diamond has directed this play with a sure hand. The set is simple, what appears to be a wall and an office chair. The lighting by Solomon Weisbard is interesting but at times distracting since it lights the far sides of the theater. It is the projections of those blips by Yana Birÿkova and the sound design by Kate Marvin that really takes you into The Pilot’s world.
This is not what typical summer theater is: light, frothy and meaningless. This play and production makes you confront and experience something that most of us either would prefer not to confront, or will never experience.
It is well worth seeing.
For tickets, visit, Westport Country Playhouse or call 203-227-4177.