George Brant’s 2012 play Grounded opened last Saturday at the Westport Country Playhouse. This riveting one-woman monologue stars Elizabeth Stahlmann as The Pilot. Brant’s play premiered in Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013, where it received the Smith Prize for Political Theater and was named a Top 10 London Play by both the Guardian and the London Evening Standard. While this is a strongly written play about a difficult subject, it does not really seem to have any political content that would really make it “political theater.”
It then had a rolling world premiere by SF Playhouse (California), Borderlands Theatre (Arizona), and Unicorn Theatre (Missouri) as part of the National New Play Network’s Continued Life Program.
It has apparently had over 100 productions around the world since then, including a 3 week Off-Broadway run in 2014 with Hanna Cabell and a 6 week Off Broadway run in 2015 with Anne Hathaway. Hathaway claims to have plans to make a movie version eventually.
The play runs about 90 minutes in this version and is played without intermission or blackouts. Brant’s script has few stage directions (or punctuation) except for a few sound cues, leaving much to the imagination of the actress, the director and the set designer.
This Westport Playhouse production was directed by Liz Diamond, a Resident Director at Yale Rep and Chair of Directing at the Yale School of Drama, where Stahlmann also once studied. Perhaps not coincidentally, the complex projections were by Yana Birykova, who also has worked extensively with the Yale Rep.
The play is about a young hot-shot combat pilot (unnamed), arrogant and overconfident as pilots can be, who on leave meets a young man at a pilot’s bar who is not a pilot and is not put off by her job. She spends three days of her leave with him, and when back at her overseas military base suddenly discovers she is pregnant. The Army does not permit pilots who are pregnant to fly fighter jets because the G-forces could be too much for the developing baby, and she is reassigned to a desk job. She has kept in contact with her boyfriend by Skype, and he is overjoyed at the news of her pregnancy, and apparently agrees to marry her. It is not clear why such a dedicated gung-ho pilot wouldn’t consider abortion in this situation, but this is never even mentioned.
We next hear that she is being transferred to Las Vegas to become a drone pilot, or as she contemptuously refers to it, the “chair corps.” She claims that no one ever comes back from the chair corps to piloting and wants to resist, but this is her assignment. So she and her (unnamed) husband and her new baby Samantha move to Las Vegas, where she begins training and soon becomes a drone pilot.
Drone piloting is a very stressful job, as reported in this Times article, and can lead to combat stress disorders, since you actually watch the carnage you create rather than quickly flying away as combat pilots can do. You also add to this the stress of switching gears to family life every night as well. To a large degree the rest of the play is about the effect of this assignment on The Pilot and her eventual Icarus-like ascent and descent.
The set, by Ricardo Hernandez, who also designed the Off-Broadway production, is stunningly ugly, made up of a single platform, barely bigger than a standard 4 x 8 platform, perhaps 5 x 10, covered with dappled aluminum, and containing a single chair which Stahlmann sits on, perches on and leans against. Behind her, ribbed aluminum strips rather like an aluminum awning cover the entire proscenium of the playhouse, perhaps 35 x 16. Eventually, colored lighting changes the mood and turns blue as she describes the joy of piloting her combat jet into the sky. But once she begins drone training, Birykova’s projections simulate the video screens she watches from her drone, with 18 identical rectangular images of several sizes covering the entire wall. Later, a single full screen image shows the target she is following.
Every actress will interpret Brant’s script differently, bringing her own take on who the overconfident young Pilot really is and how she feels, because Brant gives the actress so much leeway. Stahlmann’s interpretation is powerful, but not all that sympathetic, making it hard to connect with her experiences. However, one can still admire the enormous energy she gives in every performance.
Grounded continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through July 29, with performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2 and 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8 pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are available at the theater’s website or by calling 203-227-4177 or 888-927-7529.