Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arthur's reviews of The House on Mango Street and New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656
Grounded is the story of an unnamed U.S. Air Force pilot stationed in Iraq, or rather, in the skies over Iraq. She loves her workflight, control of her powerful machine, feeling at one with the blue of the sky. Yes, she drops bombs that turn buildings to rubbleback to sand, like the desert around them, she proclaims. Assuming that any lives lost are the consequence of the victim's guilt, she pays little heed and lives rapturously in a romance with the sky.
Things change dramatically when the pilot becomes pregnant and is assigned to desk duty. She marries, bears a daughter, and is ready to return to her calling. However, if her passion for the work has not changed, the work has. She is now assigned to captain the new generation of air-born warrior. Instead of soaring up into the sky she is working 12 hour shifts in a trailer based in Nevada, controlling the movements of a drone aircraft seeking out the enemy in Afghanistan.
This new assignment challenges the pilot in two ways. Working a shift in a war zonealbeit, safe from personal risk, half a world away from her targetsand then returning home to the domesticity of husband and child, causes a dissonance that becomes increasingly disorienting and disturbing. Further, while previously she flew directly above the enemy destined for obliteration, she saw nothing of them, but soared past even before the bombs exploded. The drones, on the other hand, send high definition images to the monitors in her Nevada trailer, so that she can see the images of the humans receiving the wrath of her payload.
Sha Cage gives an amazing performance as the pilot. The transformation of this character, from swaggering confidence to disoriented uncertainty, requires great skill and subtlety. Her journey is not abruptly from one extreme to another, but moves back and forth, eliciting terrible inner conflicts. Cage illuminates, through her highly expressive voice and face, each of these twists and turns. When she sees a parallel between the security camera on the ceiling of the shopping mall and the "eye in the sky" within the drone, she struggles to differentiate: the drones are ferreting out the guilty, traversing the desert in jeeps. She cries out "my stroller is not a jeep, and my daughter is not the guilty!" It is chilling work, in the best sense.
Director Wendy Knox guides Cage back and forth across the playing space, assuring that we are constantly engaged, and never lose sight of the high stakes involved. Michael Kittel's lighting and projections on three screens effectively illuminate the pilot's state of mind, her degree of clarity or confusion, and the distinction between Nevada and Afghanistan. Michael Crosswell's sound design adds to our sense of being there, whether "there" is aloft in the aircraft, bent over the monitor tracking her drone, of in the realm of domesticity.
Frank Theater is giving Grounded its 22nd production, but is the first to cast the pilot as an African-American woman. Nothing in the play describes the ethnicity of the pilotthough the character description does call for an actor with the physical attributes necessary to believably be an Air Force pilot. While it changes nothing in the part of her journey we directly see, this aspect of the production does add to wonderings about her background, her sense of being an outsider to power, and what struggles she may have overcome to achieve this high level rank.
In any case, the fact that this is the story of a woman who must temper her sense of achievement and freedom with the unplanned responsibilities of parenthood and unexpected affections of a life partner, adds a level of depth that might not be felt if the pilot were a man. That is not to say this is a woman's play or feminist tract, but rather to say that it is a very complex play, one that triggers multiple points for further discussion and understanding.
And what more can we ask of theater than to provide discussion, to prompt us to seek deeper understanding, while being given the gift of a wondrous performance of a highly literate script? That's what Brant has delivered in Grounded, and that explains why the play is receiving such a roar of approval from the theater community.
Frank Theater's production of Grounded continues through November 23, 2014, at The Playwright's Center, 2301 E. Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets EW $25.00, $20 for seniors and students with IDs. For tickets call 6`2-724-3760 or go to www.franktheatre.org. Writer: George Brant; Director: Wendy Knox; Set Designer: Joe Stanley; Costume Designer: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Designer: Michael KIttel; Sound Designer: Michael Croswell; Stage Manager: Glenn Klapperich; Production Assistance: Jeremy Ellarby
Cast: Sha Cage (The Pilot)