Everyman Theatre soars high with the Baltimore debut of Grounded, gluing audience members to their seats with an absorbing, emotionally-brimming, one-woman drama by multiple award-winning American playwright, George Brant, who explodes our assumptions about modern warfare, and unapologetically tells a story of our times through a hot-rod F16 fighter pilot.
Winner of the Scotsman Fringe First Award, the Smith Prize, and named a Top 10 London Play, Grounded is the second production of Everyman’s 2014-15 season and stars Megan Anderson who was just named City Paper’s Best Actress and is also well-known for her role as Jennifer Carcetti on HBO’s The Wire.
Directed by Derek Goldman, who has personally known writer George Brant for many years (friends since Goldman was a freshman in college), Grounded is a nearly flawless examination of a woman who faces the task of reimagining herself in a new role and finding self- meaning and purpose without losing herself and, quite possibly, her mind in the process.
With only one performer, an actress playing an American fighter pilot, the play examines many issues that are both timely and timeless, from the ethics of using unmanned drones in combat to the decisions faced by members of the armed services, and the consequences of those decisions.
Only called “The Pilot,” our heroine is literally grounded after an unexpected pregnancy derails her career as a top notch flyer of fighter jets. She is soon reassigned to a windowless, air-conditioned trailer in the Nevada desert, where she sits for an inordinate amount of time each day, watches a grey screen and flies remote-controlled drones over Afghanistan. The new assignment may come with some perks, like going home every day and seeing her husband and young daughter, but it also has its own unique stressors and challenges, both physical and mental. For 12 hours a day, she is an all-seeing, god-like eye on the undercarriage of a drone, ever poised to press a button and deliver summary execution to those spotted below. In the evening, she goes home and watches her beloved daughter sleeping safely.
The splendor of George Brant’s slippery script and Derek Goldman’s uncompromising production is the way they confront the audience: we are both witness and spying eye; we are mesmerized by Megan Anderson’s every move and, ultimately, implicated in her moral dilemma. It is a searing piece of theater, and gets the blistering performance it deserves from Anderson as a woman who spirals into confusion and guilt as her realization dawns: while it is easy to act when you face no physical risk to yourself, you might compromise all you hold most dear.
As “The Pilot,” Megan Anderson perfectly draws us into all of her challenges, all of the physical and emotional turmoil of this character, as we hypnotically watch for the entire length of the play’s 75 minutes. For that short time, there is only The Pilot, a fully realized person who the audience gets to know, sympathize with, root for and care about. And, that is an absolute credit to Anderson, and her extraordinary talent. She fully commits to the performance and never breaks or drops the character for a moment. She also manages to demonstrate how a one-person show should be done, with no sense of ego or attention-seeking. It never feels like an actress trying to prove how well she can handle the rigors of a lengthy solo performance. Instead, it feels true, real and natural, like we are sitting with this fighter pilot, at the neighborhood bar or somewhere relaxed and familiar, as she tells us her story. And, she tells it directly to us. That is really what it is all about, the actor is a storyteller, and Anderson is absolutely sensational at comprehensively transforming this particular tale into a no-holds-barred, exceptionally enthralling tour de force.
Grounded is a show that really could be done with extreme simplicity, just an actor in a room, telling a story for a little over an hour. In this case, though, Anderson has some help bringing the story to life. Like any great director would, Derek Goldman vanishes into the performance. That is, it never feels like Goldman is pulling the strings and navigating Anderson around on stage. While it can be observed that there may be too much gliding going on, that The Pilot needs to keep steady and stop prancing and prowling so much, her constant movement suits the tense, tightly-wound personality of the character. She is deeply conflicted and complex, at times, filled with penetrating anxiety or confusion, and her physical actions on and around the stage fit those qualities.
It is may also be entertained how much the play really needs the multiple video projections which considerably fill the entire back wall of the stage. They are fine most of the time, occasionally going a long way to assist in the delivery of the story and add emotional punch to a scene or moment. At other times, they seem somewhat superfluous and, perhaps, a little distracting. During some moments, they take away from where the focus should be, squarely on the performer and what she is saying. Along with the projections, all of the other technical elements are well-appointed and enriching. Scenic designer, Luciana Stecconi’s simple set and costuming are effective and lighting designer, Harold F. Burgess, II, does a tremendous job of enhancing the presentation.
An intensely entrancing, thought-provoking, compelling combination of intelligent text and thoroughly inhabited performance, Everyman Theatre’s Grounded raises many questions about modern warfare, fought with “eye in the sky” methods, and captures all the ups and downs of a conflicted person dealing with the ethics of her job and how it affects her personally. Right up until the chilling, immensely effective ending, you will be confronted with rights and wrongs, truths and untruths, and questions probing who is among the “guilty.”
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission.