George Brant’s “Grounded” depicts the life of a drone pilot who happens to be a woman. The title refers to what happens to the woman when she gets pregnant and can no longer fly her “Tiger,” the F-16 that had provided her raison d’être. As the character tells her story (over the course of a 75-minute single act), she experiences the highs and lows of her new position in the “Chair-Force” (referring to the sedentary position she must assume as she “pilots” the distant drones from her post in the Las Vegas desert).
It’s a compelling story that can be seen from the distinct perspectives of the female bomber pilot, the bomber pilot (without regard to gender), the soldier, and the human being who is a soldier. Those different perspectives provide both the strengths and the weaknesses in the play, as there is much to chew on in considering the character’s story, but also much that may be touched on too lightly in terms of the different perspectives her character represents.
It may be harsh criticism to suggest that Mr. Brant is trying to convey too much in the telling of this single character’s story. We were conflicted, for example, by the pilot’s female gender, as it is certainly distinct, and presumably intended to be distinct, from the story as it would be told by a male pilot (if for no other reason than that a male pilot would not have been “grounded” initially by a pregnancy).
But the pilot’s experiences are also equally compelling and frustrating in the manner they are told. We learn, for instance, that sitting in front of a screen for 12-hour shifts, as drone pilots do, is nothing like flying into the “wild blue yonder,” as fighter pilots do; nor is directing bombs with near perfect precision to kill selected enemy “guilties,” the same as dropping bombs from high above ground zero and then speeding off before they even hit their target.
Much of the soldier’s tale in “Grounded” is told in a similar vein to that depicted in the 2013 Oscar-winning film, “The Hurt Locker,” but Mr. Brant’s character is portrayed as being more “human” when she is removed from live combat missions. It is that human aspect of the military person that Mr. Brant succeeds best at portraying. His pilot’s reaction to the carnage she creates is what we would expect a real person to feel, tragic though it ultimately is.
But are each of these different perspectives intended? The overall impact, for us, at least, was a tad muddled. Is the play intended to convey an anti-war message? An audience member asked that question of the panel that handled a Q and A after the performance we saw. “Yes and no” seemed to be the answer. The pilot loves flying and bombing “guilties.” But she doesn’t react well to the collateral damage that she creates when she sees it up close. Is the central point the playwright seeks to make that war is always hell even if those engaged in it don’t always see it that way? Or are we to view the pilot as the “wounded warrior” all wars always glorify for their sacrifices?
Whatever the play’s internal deficits and ambiguities, it definitely offers a showcase for the actor who plays the pilot. At the B Street Theater’s B3 stage, Alicia Hunt is currently offering a bravura performance of the pilot. As the play’s sole character, she speaks directly to the audience as she describes the flow of her life from the joy she gets as a bomber pilot to the disenchantment and ultimate breakdown she suffers as a drone pilot.
Along the way, she relates the initial stages of sexual intensity she experiences with the guy who meets her in a bar and ultimately marries her and fathers their child, a daughter, who, as might be expected provides more joy and more complications for her. The arc of the pilot’s tale is dramatic and poignant, and Ms. Hunt conveys the many emotions and reactions to her experiences believably and powerfully. Her performance alone is reason enough to see this excellent production, directed by Lyndsay Burch, with a simple but impressively conveyed scenic design by Samantha Reno. (Julian V. Elstob provides the lighting and video scenes; Shelley Russell-Riley gets costume design credit for the pilot’s flight suit uniform.)
Another reason to see it is to mull over the differing perspectives the play offers and to consider the various points the playwright may have intended to convey.
Performances of “Grounded” continue at the B Street’s B3 Theater through August 8. Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (2711 B St.), by phone (916-443-5300), or online (bstreettheatre.org).