Directed by Lisa Portes
Produced by American Blues Theatre, Chicago
Fine production becomes unraveled with unclear twist
There is much to admire in Grounded including the set (designed by Sarah E. Ross) and the amazing projection designs by Mike Tutaj which vividly depict the visuals that a pilot would see and or what a drone would see. Add the fine, truthful performance by Gwendolyn Whiteside and Grounded is a powerful drama about the human effects of modern warfare.
We meet a hot-shot F-16 USAF pilot as she tries to explain what it feels like to command a fighter jet. She gets us to appreciate the “blue” of the sky as she darts into combat in Afghanistan. She exudes the thrill of surviving missile and ground fire as she supports our troops on the ground. Her world is fun, adventurous, and dangerous. Her hands-on flying is her life.
But, Whiteside’s world crashes after a fling with a man, Eric, leads to an expectant pregnancy that leads to her marrying the guy and the arrival of a little girl. It seems that this pilot didn’t use protection while having sex and, once pregnant, never considered an abortion. Maybe, subconsciously she wanted a family knowing full well that becoming pregnant would mean being grounded from her F-16. Playwright George Brant never addresses that issue.
But once our pilot is married and has the child, she is assigned to the “chair force,” a term for being assigned to desk duty. She is sent (with her family) to Vagas to work in a air-conditioned trailer “flying” drones over Afghanistan from 8,000 miles away. We see how her world has changed as she leaves home, drives an hour into the desert to the trailer, spends 12 hours behind a screen ‘flying’ the drones. This routine becomes a surreal adventure for her. Leaving in the morning from home, going to war via technology, killing the enemy, then returning home that evening.
During this 75 minute one-act, we experience the weird world of electronic warfare played out on a screen 8,000 miles from the target. We experience the dehumanization of warfare that this pilot slowly struggles with as she starts losing her grip on reality. since she can’t see the faces of her targets, they begin to haunt her. Really? I wonder how many faces she was able to see from her F016 thousands of feet above?
As terrific as Gwendolyn Whiteside is in presenting the wild world of the jet pilot and as convincing as she showed the mental deterioration of the drone pilot, I failed to see the trigger that lead to her mental breakdown. Playwright Brant stretches credulity in his vagueness here. I believe everything until this strong, smart and willing pilot does until come unglued. Maybe they need to use computer nerds, “gamers,” to man these drones? Perhaps.
Let me say that Grounded is a major achievement for Gwendolyn Whiteside and the work brings up assumptions on the effects of long-distance safe warfare. Too bad Brant fizzled out as to the motivation or cause of this pilot’s mental breakdown. Grounded has enough story to be worthy.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: June 15, 2014
For more info checkout the Grounded page at theatreinchicago.com
At the Greenhouse Theatre, 2257 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL, call 773-404-7336, www.americanbluestheater.com, tickets $19 – $49, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2:30 pm, running time is 75 minutes without intermission, through July 6, 2014