|Elizabeth Stahlmann. Photo by Carol Rosegg|
War was once a matter of two armed forces rushing at each other across a field. The person you fought against – the person you perhaps killed – was there in front of you, flesh and blood. The invention of gunpowder, and then the rifle and the cannon, began the process of distancing combatants, yet it was still combat with all of its inherent risks. Yes, with the coming of air warfare those in the planes did not see those they killed on the ground, but the risk factor was still there, the possibility of being shot down by flak or another plane. But what if you could fight a war from thousands of miles away, safely away from the battlefield; what if you could rain down death and destruction with the click of a button and then go home, pop open a cold one and throw some steaks on the barbecue?
Such are the questions asked by George Brant in “Grounded,” which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse under the sensitive direction of Liz Diamond. This visceral, one-woman show begins with an almost jubilant paean to the joys of being a fighter pilot, to soar into the blue sky in the cockpit of an F-17, and concludes in a gray, apocalyptic vision of a world where no one is safe and everyone is being watched. It ends not with T. S. Eliot’s “whimper” but with a whispered “boom” that will haunt you long after you leave the theater.
The journey is guided by The Pilot, played by the exquisite Elizabeth Stahlmann. A macho jet jockey who revels in the freedom of flight, the pilot is also a woman, and on leave she manages to get pregnant. This condition forces her to be “grounded,” and after marrying and giving birth, she reports back for duty only to find that her assignment has changed – she will now be a member of the “Chair Force,” piloting a drone from a trailer located on an Air Force base in Nevada an hour away from Las Vegas. At first disdainful of the assignment, the pilot, given the surreal nature of this form of “combat,” soon begins to suffer both physically and psychologically until, on a final “mission,” the dichotomy of “fighting” a war while living a “normal” suburban life forces her to crash and burn.
In a bravura performance, Stahlmann, dressed in a flight suit, creates a multi-faceted character who thrives on the Top Gun mentality and yet is forced to confront the aberrations of a war fought by proxy. Her slow descent from gung-ho jet jockey to a haunted shadow beset by delusions of a god-like power and a final break-down, in which the horrors of the brave new world we and technology have created have led to a paranoid existence, is emotionally captivating and ultimately disturbing. Her final moments, when she confronts the audience members with the fact that they have been “watching” her all along as proof of the intrusive society we live in are chilling; she becomes a Jeremiah who prophesizes the doom that awaits us all.
Stahlmann has nothing to work with but a single chair. The stage is basically blocked and truncated by an aluminum frame that suggests the side of an airplane hangar, a wall that is used to project images, created by Yana Birykova, that, among other things, a drone pilot might see on a screen. However, as stark as the “set” is, it does not lack for emotional content, thanks to the lighting design created by Solomon Weisbard. As good lighting should, it does not call attention to itself but enhances and frames the emotional roller coaster that the pilot will travel on.
“Grounded” is a brave choice for the Playhouse to open its 2017 season with. There are no bells and whistles, just a provocative play that asks many questions and an actress who is capable of holding the audience in the palm of her hand for the better part of 90 minutes. One might suggest that is what theater, worthwhile theater, is all about.
“Grounded” runs through July 29. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.