‘Grounded’ at Studio Theatre: A new view of drone warfare


Lucy Ellinson plays the Pilot in the one-person show “Grounded” at Studio Theatre. The spartan set includes a cube made of sheer fabric. (Igor Dmitry)
June 12, 2014

The eye in the sky. This image, once warbled about in the chorus of an ’80s pop hit, gains a terrible new meaning for the protagonist of “Grounded,” George Brant’s solo play. Now on view at Studio Theatre, this propulsive drama chronicles several years in the life of a female American fighter pilot. When this brash aviator accidentally gets pregnant, her career takes a new turn: Instead of soaring above the Earth, sovereign and self-reliant, she finds herself part of a team, steering a drone from a trailer in the Nevada desert. As she peers down through her monitor at Afghanistan, day after day, the activity of watching becomes first an uneasy thrill — and then something more threatening.

In a fireball performance, Lucy Ellinson portrays the Pilot in this production, which hails from London’s Gate Theatre and is directed by Christopher Haydon. (The show rounds out Studio’s New British Invasion Festival.) When you enter the Mead Theatre space, the ace Air Force officer is already present — standing confidently, legs apart, thumbs in her flight-suit belt, inside what appears to be a cube made of scrim. This striking, spartan set, which is pierced by unnerving colored lights during the course of the 75-minute show, suggests both a cage and a cold corner of virtual reality.

The cocksure attitude expressed in her initial pose turns out to be typical of the Pilot, who sees herself as a “rock star” — at least until she is relegated to what she disparages as the “Chair Force,” spying upon and periodically killing insurgents at no risk to herself. The fact that she is able to return each night to the suburban Las Vegas home she shares with her young daughter and supportive husband (a hardware store worker turned blackjack dealer) only adds to her psychological strain. At work, she tracks militants and contemplates explosions and flying body parts; at home, her daughter wants to play My Little Pony. The experiences seem a world apart — just as the cramped gray images on the drone monitor seem irreconcilable with the blue sky she once winged through. When you are in a plane, as a pilot, “You are the blue,” she observes in one of the script’s bursts of brusque, vernacular lyricism. In the Nevada trailer, by contrast, she stares for hours “at a world carved out of putty.”

Ellinson fleshes out every inch of the Pilot’s swaggering, profane, secretly agitated self, firing off her remarks at a clear but breakneck pace, stalking the cube, tossing off assertive gestures — a fist smashed into a palm, a victory sign etched with two outstretched arms. Subtle fluctuations of voice and expression testify to repressed inner conflict: When she relates the birth of her daughter, whose premature arrival will require extra solicitous parenting for the “first few years,” the Pilot’s face falls at the word “years,” and she pauses as she contemplates the reality of her new, domestic life. Then she tears off into talk again, fierce and stoical — at least on the surface.

A fascinating exploration of personality, “Grounded” is, of course, all the more interesting because the controversial subject of drone warfare is so much in the news. We hear about devastating strikes all the time, but we are more rarely invited to think about the individual lives behind the phenomenon. With its details about monitors, joysticks and Nevada commutes, and glimpses of individual Afghan combatants, Brant’s drama issues this invitation. At the same time, the playwright has woven some poetic themes and oppositions (some of them arguably a little too tidy) into his script. The Pilot becomes haunted by the color gray; the Las Vegas setting adds a layer of meaning to the notion of Predator (the name of a drone type, of course) and prey. (Tom Gibbons’s sound design, which samples ominous radio-headset static and, at one point, one-armed-
bandit ka-chings, contributes to the resonances. So do Mark Howland’s lighting and Benjamin Walden’s video design, with laser-sight-evoking spots and garish Sin City colors.)

Most significant, the play ponders instances and ramifications of watching and being watched. In its thought-
provoking final moments, we in the audience are swept up into this brooding dynamic. To what extent are we — watching a play — too comfortable being the voyeurs of an ongoing war?

Wren is a freelance writer.

‘Grounded’

By George Brant. Directed by Christopher Haydon; set and costume design, Oli Townsend; technical tour manager, Katy Munroe Farlie. 75 minutes. Tickets, $39-$49. Through June 29 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.

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