Theater Review: A Gripping Performance at Northern Stage

  • Dress rehearsal for Grounded at Northern Stage in White River Junction, New Hampshire on Tuesday, March 14, 2017. Copyright 2017 Robert C Strong II Robert C Strong II photographs

  • Dress rehearsal for Grounded at Northern Stage in White River Junction, New Hampshire on Tuesday, March 14, 2017. Copyright 2017 Robert C Strong II

  • Dress rehearsal for Grounded at Northern Stage in White River Junction, New Hampshire on Tuesday, March 14, 2017. Copyright 2017 Robert C Strong II Robert C Strong II photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/22/2017 10:00:12 PM
Modified: 3/23/2017 12:02:21 PM

There’s a compelling reason to see Grounded, the one-woman play by George Brant about an American drone pilot, now in production at Northern Stage in White River Junction, and that is the formidable actor in the role of the unnamed pilot.

Megan Anderson, who is part of the acting company of Everyman Theatre in Baltimore and who played a key role for three seasons in HBO’s The Wire, commands the stage for some 80 minutes with a focused intensity that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

It’s a highly physical, unflinching performance, which points to a central and deliberate contradiction in the play’s writing: to bring to life the fears and anxieties of a drone pilot, you have to, as an actor, be unafraid to show the mental and physical stress brought on by this particular kind of combat, in which the pilot delivers death to combatants and, on occasion, civilians although she is removed by thousands of miles from a war zone.

Brant is based in Cleveland and has written other plays, but Grounded, which has won numerous awards, is the first of his plays to reach international audiences.

The play itself holds your attention from start to finish although it suffers from the repetition of certain key phrases, words or lines that Brant asks the actor to say anywhere from two to five times in a row.

That aspect of the writing becomes tiresome, quite quickly. And some of Brant’s observations about how we are all under surveillance, all subject to the “eye in the sky” seem labored. Comparing the security cameras that monitor customers at malls to the spy satellites and drone cameras that make the pilot’s job possible is an attempt at relevance that doesn’t make it.

What Brant does remarkably well, though, is to convey the agonizing tension and loneliness of a drone pilot, sitting in a relatively isolated room at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, outside Las Vegas, watching a screen for hours, days, weeks at a time, waiting for a blip, a person, anything really, to show itself.

Then comes a moment of decision: Is this a target? Is this the target? What if something or someone shows up when least expected? Then what?

The pilot glories in being one of the toughest of the tough, an Air Force fighter pilot. She makes a point of saying that she’s no girly girl, no shrinking violet. But her psychological make-up is more complex than her initial self-evaluation would indicate. Bravado, compassion, anger and precision all come into play.

When she meets a man, falls in love and becomes pregnant, she’s asked by the Air Force to step down from the job. It’s not a step she takes lightly or willingly: so much of her career has been spent in what she calls “the blue,” at the outer edges of the sky.

After she marries and has a daughter, the pilot is reassigned to drone service, which she regards with the kind of enthusiasm that people usually reserve for a colonoscopy.

Drone pilots call it, not the Air Force, but the Chair Force. It does have its advantages: she can go to work and be home in time to eat with her young daughter and husband, or drop her daughter off at school in the morning. Normal life, except that it isn’t, really.

Brant examines the morality and implications of drone warfare. It’s pinpointed in a way that boots-on-the-ground combat isn’t. The technological advances that have produced drone warfare have also curtailed the tens of millions of combat and civilian casualties that were seen in World Wars I and II.

But, that doesn’t mean drone warfare eliminates casualties: News reports on civilian casualties as a result of drone strikes carried out during the George W. Bush, Obama and Trump administrations have made clear that such strikes are not without risk or cost. Nor does its use exempt pilots from the mental strain of being in a combat zone; it’s just a different type of combat zone.

This is brought home to the audience in the stunning set, lighting and projection and video design of, respectively, Luciana Stecconi, Harold F. Burgess and Jared Mezzochi.

When you enter the theater you’re brought into the pilot’s world: large, flanking screens showing what it’s like to sit in both the cockpit of a fighter jet, and the chair of a drone pilot.

You see the grainy gray imagery on a drone pilot’s screen and hear the neutral, contained voices of technicians coordinating drone strikes. It’s hard to overestimate how critical the set, lighting and video projections are to the tone and success of Grounded. Without them, the play wouldn’t exert the same power.

It’s notable that, in an example of cross-pollination between regional theater companies, Northern Stage has imported the production from Everyman Theatre. All the talent associated with Grounded come from the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, including D.C.-based director Derek Goldman, whose work has also been seen at Steppenwolf in Chicago, Arena Stage, the Folger and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and Lincoln Center in New York.

Goldman holds the reins with understated control. Both the play and the direction reach their peak in the scenes depicting the pilot at work. The audience finds itself in the uneasy position of anticipating a drone strike, even while destruction is the outcome.

The tension is palpable as Anderson, facing the audience, sits in her chair with her thumb on the button that will release the bomb. You can feel her nerves and muscles quivering with anticipation, see the sweat beading on her forehead and the nearly sexual rush of release after she presses the button.

When Anderson takes a bow at the play’s end you can read on her face the mental and physical toll that the play has taken. It’s an all-consuming, unsparing, brave performance, one that shouldn’t be missed.

Grounded runs through April 2 at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. For tickets and information go to northernstage.org or call 802-296-7000.

This Sunday, Daniel Benjamin, the Norman E. McCulloch Jr. Director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, and former ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department, will give a talk on the complexity of American foreign and military policy from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. at the Barrette Center for the Arts, prior to the 5 p.m. show.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.




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