Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Rebecca's recent review of Rizzo
Grounded, which is receiving its Philadelphia premiere in an Interact Theatre Company production, is one of several recent plays and films to address the ethics of modern warfare. It does so by focusing on the interpersonal with a blistering intensityfor eighty minutes, our entire experience of war is refracted through the eyes of one woman, an exceptionally skilled fighter pilot who seems to relish her role in the destruction of the desert. "I rain them down on the minarets and concrete below me," she speaks of her missiles at the top of the play. "The structures that break up the sand / I break them back down." From her eye in the sky, she becomes God, obliterating without remorse or regret.
The tidal shift in Grounded occurs when The Pilot falls in love and becomes pregnant. Motherhood and the military become twin professions: "I was born for thisbut I was born for that, too." When she is ready to return to the sky after taking several years off to raise her daughter, she is faced with a startling revelation: The job of the fighter pilot has largely been replaced by unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones. Uncle Sam still wants her, but she will be part of the "chair force," operating systems from a trailer in the Nevada desert.
Brant skillfully addresses the depersonalization of war through The Pilot's distress at being removed from "the blue," as she often calls the stretch of sky where she feels most at home. Faced with staring at a screen for twelve hours a day, killing people 8,000 miles away, The Pilot becomes more aware of what she is doing. At first she experiences the familiar adrenaline that greeted her when she was up in the clouds in her beloved plane, but the more she is dissociated from the action, the less sure she becomes of what she is doing and why she's doing it. She begins to notice cameras everywhere, watching people. When she goes to kiss her daughter goodnight, she is convinced that the girl has turned gray.
The Pilot is played by Kittson O'Neill, whose performance is admirable, if not fully realized. O'Neill never manages to fully convey the necessary swagger in the play's first twenty minutes, when The Pilot is in full jock mode. She tries to tinge her character's pregnancy and marriage with a sense of anguish at what she is losingthe bluebut this doesn't completely register. She settles in nicely to the play's second half, her sanity eroding as she drives back and forth from her military base in the desert to her home in the Las Vegas suburbs, which becomes more and more oppressive after each shift in front of the computer screen. She is shattering in the play's final moments, but you are left feeling that this isn't a complete performance.
The lack of cohesion in O'Neill's performance is particularly surprising given that her director is Kathryn MacMillan, whose superb ensemble work in Lantern Theater Company's currently running production of Mrs. Warren's Profession is among the best acting Philadelphia has seen in years. One-person plays are hardeven the most well-structured ones can feel like a lecture or, worse, a haranguing. MacMillan has directed O'Neill to stalk the well-appointed set (designed by Nick Embree), perhaps as a means to remind the audience that The Pilot is only comfortable in constant motion. I think this choice has the opposite effect of what was intendedit makes the character seem like she is becoming unhinged in a far too obvious way. The superb lighting design (by Masha Tsimring) does more to suss out the character's psychology than the peripatetic stage business. MacMillan and O'Neill are clearly both talented artists, but a little more work is required to fully realize The Pilot's story on stage.
Grounded continues through Sunday, October 23, 2016, at The Proscenium Theatre at The Drake (302 S. Hicks Street, Center City Philadelphia). Tickets ($15-38) can be purchased online at www.interacttheatre.org or by calling 215-568-8079. Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.