Grounded, which lands in Philadelphia’s Interact Theatre Company after having made a splash in both the London and New York theatre scenes (the former with no less an actress than Anne Hathaway), is a play that deals with three particularly timely topics: the advancements of military technology in the form of drone warfare; PTSD; and surveillance. If those sound like three topics only marginally linked, George Brant’s play proves that’s not the case, masterfully intertwining all three in a tight, moving, and deeply relevant story.
Yet its greatest strength is not only in its relevance, but in its complexity: Directed by Kathryn MacMillan, it avoids setting up neat little dichotomies or simplistically taking a stance, and instead provides questions rather than answers. Like the best literature and the best drama, it leaves viewers pondering.
Given that it’s an 80-minute, one-woman play, Grounded’s ability to achieve this is even more remarkable. Without the benefit of other actors, sets, or any of those other dramatic accoutrements that verisimilitude often demands, the play’s power lies in the words and their delivery. It succeeds on both levels: Despite (or perhaps because of) its brevity, its writing is tight, its parallels well-developed and poignant, its themes cleverly intertwined with the events of the story.
Its acting is similarly successful. As a one-actor play, it is entirely dependent on said actor. Kittson O’Neill is not a newcomer to Philadelphia theatre, and she carries the play masterfully. She walks onto the stage confidently to address the audience – and a quarter of an hour in, the audience listens, rapt, as she tells her story. More monologue than interactive performance, it’s nonetheless mesmerizing. The venue – the Proscenium Theatre, Interact Theatre Company’s new home at the Drake – aids her in this endeavor. Small and intimate, it creates that cozy feeling of listening to a soldier home from war tell her tale to an enraptured audience.
The tale begins as O’Neill’s character, a fighter pilot referred to only as The Pilot, discovers she’s pregnant and finds herself grounded. By the time she reports back for duty, the nature of war has changed, and she finds herself grounded a second time, relegated to what she scornfully names “The Chair Force,” piloting drones.
Suddenly, the play transforms into something evocative of science fiction. Like the best of that genre, it speculates about new technologies, creating an uncanny world at once recognizable and not, and uses that unfamiliarity to the greatest effect. The not-quite-reality of a play without a real set, made up of nothing more than a well-acted monologue, gives it a bizarre, Kafka-esque aura, ethereal and haunting as only the best works of speculative fiction are.
Stationed at a military base in Nevada, The Pilot settles down with her husband and child, driving every day to war – or to work, and the alliteration of the two words is used to great effect by O’Neill – to work 12-hour shifts, only to come home to her husband, her daughter, her nuclear family, the “cheese and corn” of the good old heartland of America, as she refers to it. She looks down at people half a world away and sees them, but the cameras aren’t precise enough to show their faces; she plays God with their lives, launching drone strikes according to orders, even as her own mind fills in their faces from her memory and imagination.
But soldiers who go off to war inevitably bring the war home, a fact that manifests itself as PTSD (and it should be noted that the Interact Theatre Company issued multiple warnings about the potentially triggering references to war within the play). Soon, the desert she drives through every day to work blurs with the desert half a world away that she stares at every day on the monitor; the grey sand of that faraway desert on her colorless monitor eventually tinges grey the desert of Nevada, her home, and even her daughter.
The Pilot brings the war home – but more than that, she brings home to the war.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Throughout the play, the Pilot is convinced that she’s fighting for the good old US of A, protecting her own civilian family – even as she sees the face of her daughter in the daughter of an enemy leader she must take out with a drone strike. The parallels between us and them are all too clear as she watches them on a grey screen for 12 hours a day, yet that closeness is inseparable from distance, and the interplay between the two creates a poignant thread throughout the play.
Instead of being deployed half a world away, the Pilot can drive home to her family every night, until war and home jumble and the separation between the two is erased. Instead of the war just being the beautiful blue of the sky that she rapturously luxuriates in, it is the desert where she lives. Eventually, she can’t separate that desert and this desert, and the uncanny distance-yet-closeness between her and the war, which is thousands of miles away from even as she fights it daily, mirrors the equally uncanny, trauma-induced distancing between her and her family, to which she can be close (and protect) even as her work (her war) creates a barrier between them.
One of the most fascinating moments of the play, then, is its climax, where the strange intertwining of intimacy and distance comes to bear on the Pilot’s ultimate choice. Fighting the war from the heartland of America, she might see the face of her child in the face of her enemy’s child on the screen, yet never questions the righteousness of her mission to protect that heartland, or her ability to play God.
And that is indeed how she frames it: Her mission involves following the convoy of “Number Two,” the enemy’s second in command, named The Prophet by the people. “You are the Prophet, but I am God,” she claims, watching him with the “all-seeing eye” of the drone. And with the press of a button, she can rain down hellfire and smite. Even her choice in the climactic moment of whether to kill him and his daughter, while it might question her orders, never questions the righteousness of her God-like power. In fact, the biggest and most poignant irony of the play is this very sense of righteousness, which leaves the ending of the play unfinished and unresolved – with more questions than answers, as only the best fiction is.
Is drone warfare less or more humane than what came before? it asks. Does this new drone technology dehumanize our enemies, as we don’t even have to see them to destroy them? How is that different from a fighter pilot dropping a bomb and flying away before she sees it “go boom”? Does killing from half a world away distance us from the war we’re fighting, from the ethics of it? Are you better able to relate to your enemies because you see the faces of your loved ones on that grey screen, or less able to do so? Does living with PTSD, driving to the war every day, and driving back to the home you’re protecting every day, just reinforce those boundaries between us and them? If you can watch your enemies up close, but fill their faces in with those of your loved ones, then what’s the moral mathematics of killing them? And how does that relate to our right to play God, to watch and kill from above?
In short, it’s 80 minutes used to the greatest effect I’ve seen in a long time. The only thing that leaves anything to be desired is the scenic design. The stage is relatively barren and abstract, a kind of latticed half-dome and a metal-grey floor, whose grey barrenness reflects both that of the sandy desert around the Pilot and the grey desert she watches on a screen every day. But it’s much too static, much too interested in verisimilitude in a way the rest of the play isn’t; the simple flashes of color that evoke sunlight or sunset or the blue of the sky don’t quite capture the sense of the surreal, the occasional greyness of reality, the way in which post-traumatic stress makes reality jumble; it’s not haunting or ethereal enough to do the words justice.
Luckily, the words are powerful enough to stand on their own.