‘Grounded’ at The Studio Theatre

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America’s air war–first there was the B-17 Flying Fortress, then the B-52 Stratofortress, then the F-16 Fighting Falcon, then the Cruise Missile, then Precision Guided Munitions (or Smart Bombs), then Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (or Drones), i.e., Reapers and Predators.

Lucy Ellinson (The Pilot). Photo by Igor Dmitry.
Lucy Ellinson (The Pilot). Photo by Igor Dmitry.

Because, for the most part, the US media refuses to cover America’s forever war with any detail (a lesson well learned from the Vietnam era), it falls upon the arts community to make the war real.  The poets have responded; the visual artists have responded; and now the theatres have responded.

In this case, The Studio Theatre presents Gate Theatre’s production of Grounded by George Brant.

The one-woman show, starring Lucy Ellinson as the F-16 pilot grounded because of a pregnancy, takes the audience into the heart of the PTSD epidemic currently sweeping through the modern US air force.

Ellinson’s performance is riveting: a delightful mixture of tough, cute, fierce, playful, maternal, and psychotic as she grapples with the gray computer screen that is America’s modern battlefield.  It is a battlefield that her “hero” pilot enters visa vie Las Vegas’s desert Creech Air Force base.  There she engages an all but unidentifiable enemy for 12 hours a day before driving home to be with her husband and young daughter.

Lucy Ellinson (The Pilot). Photo by Igor Dmitry.
Lucy Ellinson (The Pilot). Photo by Igor Dmitry.

Christopher Haydon directs this 60-minute show with a subtle mixture of intensity and cheer; and he has put together a wonderful design team to make it all real.

Oliver Townsend designed the set and costumes, but it’s the set that grabs your imagination from the get go. Audiences witness Ellinson’s pilot trapped in a cube, observed through its see-through walls, as she wages her own private war against an enemy that cannot kill her, but that she can kill with the push of a button.

Lighting Designer Mark Howland and Video Designer Benjamin Walden fill this cube with marvelous visual effects that bring to life our pilot’s transforming psychological states.

Sound Designer Tom Gibbons has added that distant thud of the guilty as body parts fly through the air, only to be seen as bright heat globs on a gray screen.

But it is Ellinson’s command of the character that makes Grounded so fabulous. The audience watches as her pilot transforms from warrior woman, an F-16 fighter pilot alone in the clouds and at one with “the blue” to a desperate wannabe pilot trapped at a desk job in the “Chair Force” staring at a computer screen.  She now kills people whom she cannot see, who are thousands of miles away, and then only when she is given the command to do so.

No doubt, The Studio Theatre has done a real service bringing Grounded to DC. Afghanistan is America’s longest war; yet, it is all but invisible to its citizenry.  We may be shocked by long lines at the Veteran’s Hospitals, but we should also be shocked by what’s making those lines so long.

The UK’s Gate Theatre, which specializes in small-scale plays for an international audience, should also be thanked.  Its Grounded, simple and elegant though it be, packs a punch greater than most high ticket productions will ever know. 

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

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Grounded plays through June 29, 2014 at The Studio Theatre –1501 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332.3300, or purchase them online.