BWW Review: GROUNDED at Southern Rep
What happens when a pilot has her wings clipped? A battle against shattering mental faculties is waged in George Brant's one-woman drama, "GROUNDED" produced by Southern Rep Theatre and hosted at Loyola University's Lower Depths Theatre.
The Pilot is a cocky top gun for the Air Force, at her best when she's up there flying amongst her beloved blue sky inside of her F-16 during the early years of the Iraq War. When she meets Eric, a man who is turned on by her strength rather than threatened by it, she suddenly finds herself trading in her blue sky for a pink positive pregnancy test. What follows is a story of a woman who must give up her suit, her plane, the need for speed and danger as well as the respect of her former life.
Starring a commanding Kerry Cahill as the nameless protagonist, in the play's opening minutes, she describes the rush she experiences in flight and the camaraderie she's created with her fellow pilots. Her eyes glisten with excitement. Clearly, she is a woman who is happy to put on her suit each day. As a person who is tough, cocky and self-assured, she is honestly taken aback when first meeting Eric, a man who is not threatened by her self-assuredness. It marks the first time our pilot is ever sad that her leave is ending so soon, though, in a humorous role-reversal, she's got her "little woman at home, and [I] know who I'm fighting for."
Unexpected, her life changes forever when she discovers she's pregnant, and can no longer soar in the comfort of a blue sky. As a pregnant woman, per regulations, she's grounded. A pilot's nightmare.
Brant's play, directed by Larissa Lury, presents a gripping portrait of his heroine's plight after losing the identity she once cherished. After giving birth to her child, she goes back to work, but with a key difference. Instead of returning to the blue, she will pilot a drone flying over an unnamed desert while she sits in a base outside of Las Vegas. If being grounded weren't bad enough, now she's stuck in what is dubbed the Bermuda Triangle for fighter pilots where "no one ever comes back."
As the gray screen becomes her whole world, the psychological fallout weighs a heavy toll on our heroine's life. While she's happy enough at home, for a while, but the gray does not give her the same sense of freedom and purpose that her favored shade of blue once did.
The play, winner of the 2012 Smith Prize for works about American politics, poses the unspoken question of how technology is affecting the psychology of soldiers in the armed forces. Does the increased distance from the targets they are pursuing lead soldiers to dehumanize them? And what of The Civilians unlucky enough to be in the crossfire?
The answers may not be immediate, but this portrait of one soldier suffering trauma is compelling as it is heart-stopping. Initially, our pilot gradually regains her cocky swagger as she hunts the enemy, but since a drone can linger, instead of zooming away, the cameras reveal the grim aftermath of war, which is as vivid as it is visceral. "I didn't notice those last time," she remarks as body parts fly.
As the guilt and suspicion plague her, the pilot begins to crack as each hour, each day passes and she no longer can decipher what is real and what isn't. Is that her daughter being held by a terrorist?
Cahill gives a tour de force performance under the discerning directions of Lury. Primarily cocky, she at times becomes quite unlikeable, though when the cracks begin to widen, her vulnerability seeps out and we cannot help but want to reach out to this tormented soul. And she does it all by herself without a shred of glitz and theater glitter. The show is raw and evocative as we watch the pilot slip into a deluded reality. Just as she watches, we the audience watch her in turn, and we are left to ponder the reality of many who protect us.