Studio Theatre often spots promising playwrights before they become household names. Such is the case with George Brant, whose Grounded is a riveting one-person show that was a hit at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, then moved to London's Gate Theatre, and then off-Broadway to New York's Walkerspace. Now the production comes to Studio Theatre's Mead Theatre.
Grounded tells the story of a first-class fighter pilot, a character known only as "The Pilot," brilliantly played by Lucy Ellinson. A powerful presence, she introduces the audience to her exciting world of war at the beginning of the play. Her fast-paced, staccato monologue describes how she is attracted to this existence by danger, speed, and power and by the camaraderie she shares with her fellow pilots – most of them male. She loves all of her profession's dangerous aspects, but most of all she adores "the blue," her name for the sky she inhabits as she soars over the desert in her F-16, thousands of feet up in the air, raining missiles down on the enemy below.
The hot-shot pilot's personal life gets in the way of her career, though, when she unexpectedly becomes pregnant and is reassigned to a desk job, since pregnant women are not allowed to fly. It's a job calculated to drive her crazy. Her new base of operations is a windowless trailer outside Las Vegas. By then she has married her baby's father, and the three of them live in the Nevada desert. It is here that she is condemned to sit in front of gray computer screens for 12-hour shifts, flying drones over Afghanistan, looking for enemy tanks and cars and wiping out their passengers. She loves being a mother, but never gives up her hunger to be a flier again, to get back to "the blue."
Ellinson is simply astonishing throughout the complex arc of Grounded, first as the tough, fiery Air Force officer whose sly sense of humor and physical hunger for life make her the perfect super-pilot, super-lover, super-mother. Later, Ellinson sensitively and subtly portrays The Pilot's gradual loss of interest in life without being maudlin. Throughout, she is intense, funny, intelligent, and proud.
Director Christopher Haydon presents The Pilot in her cube before the play begins. Blaring rock music plays as the audience files into the theater. The Pilot, wearing her green Air Force jumpsuit and black boots, stands perfectly still. Her blond hair is cut short, her back is ramrod straight, her thumbs are hooked into her belt. She is calm, beautiful, the picture of self-control.
In Grounded, each production element is a reminder of the contradictions in The Pilot's life: She is straightforward and direct but distant from us, removed. Oliver Townsend's stark set is a white scrim cube, just big enough to contain The Pilot and give her room to walk three paces in each direction. Lighting designer Mark Howland attaches tiny spotlights to the ceiling of that cube, creating different colors and patterns to express The Pilot's emotions and surroundings – for instance, the sky or a bar or the Las Vegas Strip.
The Pilot exhibits a rapid verbal pace throughout the entire play, with only occasional pauses after she has moved to Nevada. Haydon uses those brief silences to mark the places where The Pilot increasingly realizes the absurdity of her life: She spends her days looking at gray computer screens and her nights dumbly staring at a colored television screen.
Grounded is not a political play. It is not about a particular war. It does not appeal to one group or party and it does not argue for or against any particular foreign policy. It touches on technology and the way it has changed the rules of war. In her final monologue, The Pilot realizes the effect that long-distance combat has had on her psyche, and comes to understand that the bizarre world of remote war craft has canceled out any access to her beloved "blue."
At its heart Grounded is primarily a personal story, designed to take the audience into the mind and soul of The Pilot as she shows us the downside of "war without risk."