Studio Theatre GroundedBy David Siegel • Jun 16th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Studio Theatre: (Info) (Web)
Studio Theatre, Washington DC
Through June 29th
$20-$49 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed June 12th, 2014
In the “chair force” world depicted in George Brandt’s Grounded we witness the slow grinding boredom of the new way to wage war, punctuated by moments when a pilot feels a God-like rush to take action against the bad guys. The warrior is, at first, a strutting “gung-ho lifer” who initially has no compunctions about wasting a bad guy’s life until more personal issues find their way into the warrior’s mind.
But then the warrior is no longer piloting a high-flying, fancy, F-16, doing unseen damage from high in the blue sky. This warrior is piloting a high technology drone which endlessly surveils and then can destroy someone in the time it takes a signal to transmit half way around the world into the air above Afghanistan…in this case, a bit over one second. Then a silent poof as a missile is launched, destruction happens seen from grey images on a screen.
To some this particular warrior may be an unlikely one. She is an unnamed, grounded pilot. She was grounded after she unexpectedly became pregnant and then became a mother and wife. No longer flying high into the wild blue yonder, she is a drone pilot in a barcolounger an hour’s drive from Las Vegas in the Nevada desert. A desert not unlike what is in Afghanistan.
Grounded is a fairly taut portrayal of this unnamed Air Force Major’s life as she unravels into a break-down into a lock-up awaiting a court-martial. Grounded is not so much a drama about the morality of new warfare methods, nor is it a flashy production full of visual pyrotechnics. In its own way, it is very old-fashioned; a one actor monologue with the pilot (Lucy Ellinson) trying to get inside the audience’s head and stir things up.
Grounded is to be appreciated for Ellinson’s acting prowess over its 60 intermission-free, claustrophobic minutes. The audience comes to know Ellinson’s character as her mind opens up even as she is “locked” away in the transparent box that is her mind. It is her mind-box we peer into as her crack-up slowly begins, taking away her pride, her sense of self and much more.
Now before I go too much further into this review, let me say this, I was once in the Air Force, as an intelligence officer in a war long ago. I was stationed in the Far East and worked in a large windowless box, with some of my unit in a trailer not unlike what is depicted in Grounded miles farther from my own main windowless box. It was a different war, Vietnam, and I was not a “gung-ho lifer.” I recall utter monotony, until events happened which set all into a highly stressed mode. I was often enough the only officer on duty in the world of around the clock shift work. Decisions had to be made. Actions had to be taken. So, Grounded is a show that brought my own memories flooding back.
Under Christopher Haydon’s straight forward direction of Grounded, we first come in contact with the Pilot as she is in a transparent box, by way of set designer Oliver Townsend. She is actively surveilling the audience. AC-DC like rock music (sound designer Tom Gibbons) is blaring. The Pilot is not passive as she stands in her at-ease position even moving into a more swagger laden pose with hands in front, always watching. And the words begin to flow. The grinding down of her pride, her personhood, and the unnerving juxtaposition of killing from a distance only to drive home and be with her husband and daughter.
We see her descent into her own private Hell as her words tumble out, her fists harden, her pilot’s cock-sure strut is no more. Lights flash in the mind box as things happen. In the last gripping five minutes or so of the production, the audience witnesses intimately the Pilot’s actions and inactions. Frozen. Traumatic. Then a black-out leaving the audience to contemplate the issues raised.
As directed by Haydon, who is the artistic director of Britain’s Gate Theatre and directed the show there, Grounded is a well-accomplished production with a rhythm of life working in the stressful conditions that war brings. Some of the technical and acting elements hit quite well. The blaring music to drown out boredom and help to alleviate stress. The pilot’s need for a blatant kind of lusty life to prove herself alive.
This is playwright Brandt’s introductory course into modern, distant warfare. It will not be the last such teaching production from a playwright or screen writer, I am certain. Grounded is not a drama about the larger morality issues of new warfare including the use of drones. It is more an intimate portrait of one particular woman warrior. A warrior who believes totally in “protect and destroy” as an adage. Who thinks being a pilot is being a “rock star.” Who at first wears a flight suit (Oliver Townsend again) as a powerful sexy attire that draws men to her.
In an interview, Grounded playwright Brant is noted to say: “I approached this play with a lot of questions and wasn’t sure where I stood with this new technology and the moral implications of it; I’m happy anytime American soldiers lives are not at risk, but am troubled by some of the moral implications of [drone warfare] and what it’s doing to our standing in the world.”
Grounded is an issue-raising script and performance that doesn’t shrivel away from tough matters. It has its share of tragedies depicting a world rarely shown on stage. It is another import from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival but will strike a different nerve than the vastly different Black Watch that Shakespeare Theatre brought to town a few years ago. Of possible interest for those who see Grounded is a new movie that will be opening soon in DC, that started as a play written by Matt Witten. It had a one performance screening last week at the E Street Cinema. It is called “Drones.”
Studio Theatre’s artistic director David Muse has brought to DC, what is surely to be a growing list of theater productions not unlike what some of us vividly recall from the Vietnam War era. Different wars with new artistic visions and distinct voices.
Note: I recall this from 1970 as my unit (called Able Flight back then) would sometimes sing from Elton Johns’ “Burn Down the Mission” with lyrics by Bernie Taupin:
If we’re gonna stay alive
Watch the black smoke fly to heaven
See the red flame light the sky.
Burn down the mission
Burn it down to stay alive
It’s our only chance of living
Take all you need to live inside.
Photos provided by Studio Theatre
- The Pilot: Lucy Ellinson
- Playwright: George Brant
- Director: Christopher Haydon
- Set and Costume Designer: Oliver Townsend
- Lighting Designer: Mark Howland
- Sound Designer: Tom Gibbons
- Technical Tour Manager: Katy Munroe Farlie
- Studio Technical Director: Robert Shearin
Disclaimer: Studio Theatre provided a complimentary media ticket to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10474.
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.