Grounded — Image courtesy Frank Theatre

Grounded

Frank Theatre
Directed by Wendy Knox

Since its premiere in August of 2013, George Brant’s one-woman play Grounded has received more than 20 productions throughout the U.S., the U.K., and Australia, with more to come. It’s not hard to see why. The play’s subject matter — the military use of remotely piloted drones to launch missile attacks on suspected terrorists — is a topic ready-made for cultural commentary and dramatic interpretation.

Many objections to drone warfare revolve around the notion that killing people by remote control with no risk to one’s own forces changes the calculus of conflict for the worse, distancing the perpetrators of violence from the consequences of their actions. (One recalls Barack Obama joking about launching drones against the Jonas Brothers to protect his young daughters while forces under his command were using real drones to kill other people’s daughters and sons.) Brant’s play, on the other hand, focuses on the ways in which, for the people operating these drones, those consequences may be inadvertently brought closer to home.

Grounded is narrated entirely by a character known only as The Pilot (portrayed in Frank Theatre‘s production by Shá Cage), an Air Force major who, at the beginning of the story, spends her days flying fighter missions in Iraq. The Pilot loves tearing through the sky (“the blue”) in her F-16 — and she loves firing missiles at “the guilty,” though by the time those missiles reach their targets, she is long gone. While she is on leave, however, a tryst with a man named Eric results in a pregnancy that she decides to carry to term, keeping her out of the sky, and the fight, that she loves.

After marrying Eric and giving birth to a daughter, Sam, our protagonist starts yearning to get back in the cockpit. When she tells the Air Force she is ready to return, however, they assign her to the drone program. Torn between her disdain for what she calls the “chair force” and the seemingly welcome opportunity to come home to Eric and Sam every night, she accepts the assignment and moves her family to Las Vegas, an hour away from the facility in the desert where the drones are operated.

In the drone program, everything is different. No longer a lone wolf, The Pilot is now part of a team. Instead of looking out at the blue sky, she looks down at the ground, which looks gray, as her day shift in Nevada is a night shift in Afghanistan. Now, when she fires a missile, she keeps her plane circling overhead to observe the aftermath. And then, after seeing body parts fly across the faraway desert, instead of going out for a drink with her fellow pilots, she goes home to her loving husband and daughter. Over the course of the play, these juxtapositions start to take their toll.

There is, admittedly, something a little distasteful about the current cultural appetite for stories about the psychological impact of atrocities on those who commit them, as if those who have resigned themselves to the “necessity” of such actions are looking to absolve themselves by feeling really bad about it all for a little while. In Grounded, Brant seems aware of this lurking complacency and makes what appears to be a conscious effort to address it, transforming The Pilot from a character who is ignorant enough to gloat about blasting minarets to pieces into someone whose growing comprehension of her actions enables her to confront her superiors, and the audience, with the gravity of what she has been ordered to do.

Ultimately, the main strength of Grounded is not what it says or might say about drones, nor the sometimes forced poetry of its color symbolism and metaphors and references to Greek mythology, but rather its dramatization of the birth of empathy, a process that comes to a head in a heartbreaking climactic scene that Cage carries off masterfully. Cage is riveting throughout, in fact, bringing the nearly bare set to life as the venue for her character’s increasingly urgent need to explain herself. The rhythms of her speech, the choreography of her movements, and the nuances of her facial expressions add up to a virtuoso performance. Even for those with no interest in drones, Grounded might be worth seeing for that reason alone. Frank Theatre’s production is at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis through Nov. 23.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.