It is a difficult thing to make a captivating experience out of a single monologue. Yet for 70 minutes the story we hear in playwright George Brant's Grounded, a production by Page 73 directed by Ken Rus Schmoll at Walkerspace, keeps us mesmerized. Brant's words pulse with the rhythms of an epic war poem, rendered in the most natural way by the talented actor Hannah Cabell, but this solo play brings a modern sensibility to the ancient theme of war that Homer could have never imagined.
The play revolves around The Pilot (Cabell), a woman in a male-dominated Air Force who loves blasting AC/DC songs, flying her F-16 fighter over war zones, and annihilating minarets and guilty "military age males" below. Her life takes a turn when she comes back from maternity leave and discovers that the hot new weapons of choice are none other than drones. As such, The Pilot has been grounded and must now conduct missions from a safe, Nevada-based "chair force" room. But something about this new weaponry changes her. In her F-16, she never saw the effects of her missiles; now, with her godlike view through a gray-colored screen, she can witness the carnage she creates. It's not long before the realities of her job begin to tax relationships with her family and coworkers, leading her on a downward spiral into an abyss where it becomes impossible to distinguish an enemy from a loved one.
Aside from the play's frightening reflections on war and the controversial wartime use of drones, Cabell nearly hypnotizes the audience with her gifted, emotionally charged performance, showing us the psychological effects experienced by a human who has the power of a wrathful deity. She barely budges from her spot, standing on a narrow platform with a single chair that is used only at the play's end. And yet she makes the stage feel full of action. With impeccable cadence and discreet gestures, Cabell relates The Pilot's story naturally, from her cocky and confident first scene to her ominously muted last.
This production is grounded in imagination and relies on the audience's ability to see everything while being shown nothing. It's no accident that The Odyssey is mentioned, because Grounded is probably as close as you're going to get to a bard's evocative recitation of Homer. Brant's writing bulges with imagery and metaphor, creating astonishingly concrete mental images of The Pilot's world, from "guilty body parts" seen through the lens of her screen, to the flight room set up like rows in a typewriting class, to a little girl running innocently to her father. The language paints such a vivid picture, it's thrilling to realize that all of these images are conjured by the words of one person.
Engaging solo acting combined with strong and compelling writing is rare in the age of show-me-everything entertainment, so a thought-provoking, thoroughly engrossing production like Grounded will make a welcome and important addition to your theatergoing diet. "The screen isn't big but it becomes your world," says The Pilot. The same could be said of this play.