BWW Reviews: GROUNDED, Presented by Studio Theatre, Offers Intense, Thought-Provoking Look at Experience of Modern Warfare
It's a fighter pilot's worst nightmare - to be 'grounded' and not have all of the power and solace in the world at one's fingertips while executing missions over war zones. That's precisely what happens to the female pilot in George Brant's intense, witty, and searing solo piece, aptly named Grounded. At Studio Theatre this month, local audiences can experience the UK-based Gate's Theatre production of the piece, which recently made quite a statement at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Achieving a perfect blend of an excellent idea on what which to base a story, script, direction, acting, and production concept, it's one of the best solo shows I've seen in recent memory.
Now, full disclosure here. I expect a lot out of solo shows and have only seen a handful that I thought had an interesting enough story at the core, stellar acting/direction, and production concept to make them memorable and keep me completely immersed in what's happening. For me, it's the kind of theatrical presentation that either works really well, is a complete disaster, or shows promise in one area, but is really lacking in the other two, which ultimately still makes it painful. This is one of those rare shows that's I'd put in the column of the ones I will remember for very good reasons.
When we enter the Mead Theatre, our Pilot (Lucy Ellinson) is standing in a transparent box, already donning her treasured and rather authentic looking flight suit (both designed by Oliver Townsend). She moves her head occasionally, but nothing more. As the lights dim and the charging music begins, we are off on what's essentially a 60-minute sprint that completely introduces us to who she is and what she stands for right from the get-go. Her job is her dream job - she makes that really clear. Flying F-16s over Iraq/Afghanistan is an experience she clearly loves, gives her a purpose in life, and maybe a reason to live. A brief leave back home changes her life forever. A pregnancy and then marriage, she's grounded. Away from the comforting blue.
After giving birth, she assumes that she'll be ready to fly again and get back to the place where she belongs, but her commanding officer has other ideas. Instead, she'll be manning aircraft of a different kind. Yes, she'll be manipulating those oft-discussed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, more commonly known as drones featuring names like Predator or Reaper) via a joystick in a trailer on a military base just outside of Las Vegas. Conducting reconnaissance missions from afar and, when instructed, hitting targets - the grey images she sees on a small screen. She'll be joining the dreaded "Chair Force." Of course she'll still be supporting the war, and have an opportunity to use some really cool and rather pretty advanced technology, but she's still convinced her life is over. Supporting the boys remotely means she'll be experiencing less of the adrenaline and excitement that comes with the territory of "really" flying.
After a 12-hour shift that's often of the mundane variety - though with a spark of excitement every now then that's kind of like, but maybe not really like, what she knew before - she simply drives home to see her husband and her little girl. That's a pretty quick transition from war to the homefront. There's no real divide like when you're in the real theater of operations downrange.
Engaging in remote warfare, she learns, is not without its own set of psychological impacts. Scary ones. The seemingly safe job is not so safe and will have a lasting impact on her view of war/targeting, her marriage, her parenting approach, the way she's able to divide the world of family and the world of career, and her definition of what it means to be a member of the armed forces. Who is she now? What does she represent? The identity she long held onto is called into question more than once. And that's pretty devastating.
As directed by Christopher Haydon, Ellinson gives a tour-de-force performance that's nothing short of electrifying. Her manner of speaking is appropriately confident and direct and she nails the mannerisms of her intensely competitive character to a tee. (I say this, incidentally, as someone who spends sufficient amount of time around our men and women who have or still do wear those flight suits.) Her character's search for identity and purpose is explored in a nuanced and perfectly organic way. It's gripping theatre to be sure.
The power of Brant's original and well-placed words and how she brings them to life is reason enough to see the show, but Haydon's production concept - though probably risky on paper - brings the production to a whole other level. Lighting (Mark Howland), sound (Tom Gibbons), and video (Benjamin Walden) design elements are expertly woven into the telling of the story to stress alternate universes that the Pilot inhabits on any given day and also the changes in her behavior as stress mounts or subsides. The choice to stage the entire show in a transparent canvas box may be a risky one. There's a danger it might be seen as a bit of a novelty if it's not clear that the set is serving a major purpose to develop the story. In this well-executed production, the box just fits in more ways than one. Our pilot - throughout her various experiences she recalls in her monologue - is trapped, contained....well, you get the picture....both physically and sometimes emotionally. People are watching her though from a distance and with a barrier between the observer and the subject - much like it is in her world. It's a sophisticated and creative touch, though certainly not heavy-handed.
While I am not going to use this review to describe, assess, and analyze the main thematic takeaway of the play and the specific message it offers on the use of UAVs in today's conflicts - the pitfalls and opportunities of using them to support achieving missions and objectives - I will offer this bit of advice. Go see the show. It's accessible and offers something to everyone, no matter their experience with or perspective on modern military engagement. Even if the military angle is not your cup of tea, I do promise a theatrical experience that's akin to an explosion - a good kind - that needs to be experienced. The grapple for identify, furthermore, is something everyone can relate to no matter one's profession.
Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission.
Pictured: Lucy Ellinson (The Pilot). Photo by Igor Dmitry.