George Brant’s off Broadway play, “Grounded,” opened in Reno Thursday night, November 12, at Midtown’s Good Luck Macbeth Theatre. The one-woman, one-act play runs just over an hour; and while the production might be a small, the author’s message is weighty.
The play’s heroine is a rarity in the macho world of fighter-jet jockeys: a woman. Nevertheless, she possesses the same cocky, thrill-seeking persona as her male counterparts, who she proudly calls “my boys.” They knock down brewskis together and regale in their sorties over Iraq. The unnamed woman pilot, played by Ashley Marie James, loves everything about her job: the speed, the danger but most of all, flying F-16s in the boundless and exhilarating expanse of “the blue.”
During a night out with the “boys,” she meets Eric, a small-town hardware store clerk, who isn’t put off by her cocky persona. On the contrary he’s excited by it, especially when she sports her flight suit. He even wants to get it on while she wears it. They fall in love, marry and she soon becomes pregnant. But pregnancy for a female flyer is career-ending — a “Bermuda Triangle” from which “no one ever comes back.” Regulations prohibit pregnant pilots from flying. The erstwhile aviator is grounded and sentenced to the “chair force.” Assigned to steer a drone from the safety of the Nevada desert, she rationalizes the advantages of having the “threat of death removed.” Yes, she can still attack the enemy, but from the safety of her armchair during a twelve-hour shift. Then it’s a short drive home to kiss the husband and daughter in the comfort of their desert home. “Viva Las Vegas.”
But while mortal danger might have been removed from the aerial combatant, killing by remote control has its own special horrors that wreak havoc on the psyche. What the jet pilot loved about the thrilling war in the wild “blue” yonder is absent in the death she metes out via joy stick. “Gray” images of missile strikes on victims below are now visible on an impersonal computer screen and they’re horrific ones she’s never before witnessed. As James opined after the show, “In a twelve-hour shift, nothing happens for nine. It’s boredom then destruction.”
It’s not easy to carry a solo show, and especially hard for an actor to have the stage presence to keep an audience engaged. I was impressed with James. She swaggered around the stage in a trim flight suit exulting, pronouncing, sermonizing, reflecting, lamenting, and despairing as her character evolved during the one-hour-plus performance. Director Joe Atack created a minimalist set fitted with a single chair, small sand dunes and a narrow runway and James owned it, circling and pacing like a predator on the hunt. A screen at the rear of the stage was used to great effect to project the actor’s interior emotions, while she narrated her story. Well done Director Atack. My minor critique would be that James would be more compelling if she throttled back a bit on the pace of the dialogue. Inflection and emphasis are dramatic, and the audience needs a moment to absorb the dialogue’s impact.
“Grounded” is a moral dilemma tale that poses difficult and contemporary questions. Go see it and take your friends, along with your thinking caps. It’s a taut, provocative script well interpreted by James and Atack. Then hit the nearest coffee shop to hash out what you’ve seen, because these issues aren’t going away. As author Brant tells it: “F-16s are dinosaurs. Drones? Can’t make ‘em fast enough.” Get your tickets soon. “Grounded” is only playing through Saturday, November 28. I just might see it again.
If you go:
Where: Good Luck Macbeth Theatre, 713 S. Virginia St.
When: Through Nov. 28
By Galen Watson