Out of the blue, “Grounded” in shades of gray
by Carolyn Hayes Harmer
Article:9839; Posted: June 14, 2015 at 1:00 p.m.
Since roaring onto the scene in 2013, George Brant’s one-woman play, “Grounded,” has traversed the world. Now this gripping narrative of contemporary combat, and its commingling of front lines and home front, has its Michigan premiere at Theatre Nova, part of the Ann Arbor company’s first season. With direction by Phil Powers, the single-act production moves at jet speed, even as it traces a long, chilling free fall into the unknown.
The Pilot (Deborah Keller), clad in a zippered flight suit, begins her story at the beginning. A proud career fighter pilot for the US Air Force, she hooked up with a civilian while on leave, and a subsequent pregnancy pulled her out of the perilous sky and placed her behind a confining desk. The danger inherent in her work gives a different take on the “mommy track” formula, but this doesn’t stop the Pilot from betraying her feelings of disappointment. Even as she marries the baby’s father and is happy to begin raising their daughter together, she speaks with longing of the “blue.”
In the play’s opening beats, Keller’s limitless bravado makes the clipped cadence of the script feel like beat poetry. Physical embodiment and pantomime complete the larger-than-life direction, which plays against a bare-bones set (by designer Daniel C. Walker). The Pilot’s story is colored in by up-to-the-minute lighting and sound cues (by designers Walker and Powers, respectively), which, over time, hew her into a changing routine that she hasn’t chosen and can’t control.
By the time the Pilot is ready to get back in the sky, she is informed that the entire approach to waging war has changed. She can’t get back into a cockpit because there apparently aren’t any cockpits. Now, pilots operate multi-million-dollar drones, from a stateside desert thousands of miles away, and must shake off the focus of nightly combat on the drive home to their families. Here, Keller finds a grinding groove in the rote repetition of her dissonant new life, her incongruous parallel selves, and the harrowing “gray” of constant surveillance in place of daring.
Powers’s direction keeps things moving at a constant hum, foregoing marked ups and downs in favor of a subtle, almost imperceptible descent as the Pilot’s certainty gradually disintegrates. As a result, the production reaches a level of frenzy relatively early and attempts to hold it, leading to a wearying number of false endings that make the viewer question what the point will eventually be, if not this.
With a text this circuitous, it’s impossible for the lone performer to merely stumble; any lapse in memory or delivery threatens a calamitous fall, without the safety net of a scene partner. Still, Keller’s presence is more than engaging as she executes this risky (and occasionally risqué) material, giving dimension to an unconventional career trajectory and putting a human face on modern warfare in a unique, thought-provoking manner.
Running time: 80 minutes (no intermission)
The Yellow Barn, 416 W. Huron, Ann Arbor
Evenings performances Thursdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m.
Matinees Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
Tickets are pay-what-you-can (suggested donation $20.00)