Grounded provides a unique look into one woman’s journey from top-notch fighter pilot, on which her self-image is staked, to a drone pilot sinking daily into the shrouds of PTSD. There have been many stories of soldiers coming home but few are told so powerfully in the first person.
Winner of the Scotsman Fringe First Award, the Smith Prize, and named a Top 10 London Play, Grounded is a challenging project. As in the performance at Everyman Theatre in October, Olney’s current production, co-produced with Everyman Theatre, benefits greatly from having Megan Anderson inhabit the character of “The Pilot.”
With no name of her own — symbolizing the annihilation of individual personalities in the name of patriotic duty — “The Pilot” opens the window into the personal moral crises faced by many in the military. Her mental focus during the years as a pilot revolved around the thrust of her airplane and journey into the “blue.” Her awareness of the casualties she caused on the ground almost seemed an afterthought.
After the first sign of pregnancy, “The Pilot” is yanked out of the blue that was her oxygen and the flying that defined her as a person. The Pilot is reassigned to Ft. Creech in the desert of Nevada, where she sits in a windowless, air-conditioned trailer watching grey screen. Her job — to fly remote-controlled drones over Afghanistan. This gives her a new perspective; she is no longer pulsing with the excitement of flying in the blue. Instead she is glued to a monitor using an areal view of the desert. Rather than looking up and ahead, “The Pilot” is confined to looking down at the grey desert below.
In addition to giving her a new perspective on the war, the drone piloting does not let her make individual decisions. She has a “watchman” and other superiors instructing her how to fly the plane and when to drop munitions. At first, the glories of killing enemy trying to plant IED’s partially replaces her loss of freedom in the sky.
For 12 hours a day, she stares at a gray screen looking for things that do not look normal. While she is geographically around the world from the battlefield, her view is more intimate. Each target becomes an individual — perhaps one whose death is to be celebrated — but a living and breathing person she can see and experience before pressing the trigger. Then, by order of her commanders, she lingers to watch body parts spew forth from the strike.
As the grey desert and its inhabitants are burned into her memory from 12 hour shifts, it becomes hard for “The Pilot” to distinguish her world within the trailer from the 12 hours she spends outside, commuting, sleeping, and interacting with her husband and daughter. “The Pilots” emotional implosion is representative of the incidence of PTSD among drone pilots equal to that of those in the combat arena.
There is a brilliant script by George Brant’s and superb direction by Derek Goldman, and an exceptional performance from Megan Anderson.
The timeline of women in the Air Force created by dramaturg Naomi Greenberg-Sloan lends context to Grounded as do notes on the history of the drone program by Lindsay Barr, Nora Stillman Burke, and Abby Grimsley add context to the action in Grounded.
The bevy of technical aspects of Grounded are so well integrated and executed that I didn’t realize, until after the fact, the impact they had. Harold F. Burgess II (Lighting Design), Jared Mezzocchi (Projection Design), Eric Shimelonis (Composer/Sound Designer) and Luciana Stecconi (Scenic Designer) worked together to make often stand-alone crafts to a seamless whole.
Olney Theatre Center’s production of Grounded really soars!
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.