There were moments when I felt as if I was being machine-gunned in my seat, with words, not bullets. Still, painful. You should see Northern Stage's Grounded anyway. It's that powerful a piece of theater, and it will take you somewhere you have likely never been.
Actor Megan Anderson (featured photo and below) is in the driver's seat from the first to the final moment of this one-woman, 70-minute show. She is a traditional Air Force pilot (unnamed) who lives her best life in blue skies until pregnancy sidelines her into the new and derided Chair Force. She's required to trade the cockpit and camaraderie of fellow pilots for a single Barcalounger in an air-conditioned trailer in the Las Vegas desert, as a "pilot" of a bomb-delivering drone. For 12 hours a day, she stares at monotonous gray screens showing a landscape of "minarets and concrete", searching for shadowy figures (further dehumanized by the term "putty people"). If a voice in her headset adjudges them "guilty," she pushes a button to blow them up. Dark blobs amid the mushroom-like clouds appear, sanitized images of body parts flying through the air. Her shift over, she drives home to the hubby and kid.
Her satisfaction with her job frays during the next hour, a compact descent into madness that is full-throttle rather than a gentle meander. The playwright's use of any comic relief evaporates quickly. The audience is captive to the tension that escalates into those verbal machine gunfire-like moments. It's not gratuitous. Anderson masterfully creates this claustrophobic, no-way-out sense for the audience that mirrors what is happening in her character's head. The end's a surprise with a final drop-mic moment. At the standing ovation, those applauding look stunned; Anderson is visibly drained.
From the moment when the audience is entering the theater, this production sent me back to Northern Stage's opener of the season. Macbeth--set in modern times--was an elaborately staged set of destruction, with chain-link fences and piles of rubble; Grounded's set is sparse, as bare as theatrically possible. Death in Macbeth is intimate, occurring at knife point and face to face under the very roof of the political pair who seek their own advancement. In Grounded, death is removed and antiseptic, the blood and gore reduced to nothing by someone who gains little but a paycheck for shift work. Grounded is Macbeth's weird fraternal twin. The same, but different. But the same. But different . . .
Program notes say that because "drones are always watching, so the pilots must be too," and as a result of working conditions, the Air Force simply cannot retain human beings in this job. The audience is invited to ponder whether the pilot's gender makes a difference, and there is an ancillary point about the fact and the consequence of our culture's having cameras everywhere--from JC Penney dressing rooms to Afghanistan. Interesting issues, no answers. I couldn't go there, too preoccupied by the specter of someone dissolving before my eyes and the incomprehensible costs of modern warfare to the bombed and the bombers. Grounded is dramatized but not so fictional. Creech Air Force base with its bleary-eyed pilots, encapsulated in trailers, exists.
I can't stop thinking about them.
(Northern Stage invites you to a conversation with Daniel Benjamin, Director of the Dickey Center at Dartmouth and expert on counterterrorism, on Sunday, March 26 from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Free and open to the public. For more information, see this earlier post.)
Grounded is playing at Northern Stage in White River Junction VT through April 2.
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Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge