Sunday, April 26, 2015


Photo: Sara Krulwich
A 2011 one-character play about a fighter pilot who transitions from combat to an assignment on an Army base as a drone pilot, Grounded, by George Brant, has been produced around the country and last ran in New York in January 2014. As Charles Isherwood's review of that production points out, the show examines the life of one woman facing "particular traumas," but "ultimately doesn't provide much fodder for larger reflections on American foreign policy or the changing mores of a changing military." An interesting profile of one woman's descent into severe PTSD, the production at the Public nevertheless doesn't pack quite the punch I wished it would.

Anne Hathaway plays a nameless, swaggering, aggressively unsentimental fighter pilot, who loves being in the air--the blue--more than anything else. She brags at the beginning of the show about her speed, stealth, and ability to drop bombs on suspicious "military-age males" from miles above. One evening, while drinking with the fellas while home on leave, she meets a man, Eric, who doesn't flinch at her tough demeanor or feel threatened by the traditionally macho work she does. She takes him home for a weekend of what confides is enormously satisfying sex. When she realizes, after redeployment, that she's pregnant (she intuits that it's a girl), she reluctantly takes leave, because as much as she loves the blue, she just "can't kill her"--and also, she's in love. After marrying Eric and giving birth to Samantha, she is reassigned to what she sneeringly refers to as the "chair force": a team of trained pilots who work out of a trailer on an Army base in Las Vegas, directing drones to drop bombs on targets thousands of miles away. While skeptical and unhappy at the thought of sitting and staring at a computer screen for 12-hour shifts instead of taking to the skies, she finds some comfort in the fact that she doesn't have to separate from her family, and that the threat of her own injury or death no longer exists.

Yet the new, highly classified and incredibly monotonous work wears on her quickly, especially since, ironically, it brings her much closer to her targets than she ever had to be as a pilot. She stares for hours on end at myriad shades of gray, longing for the blue and missing the camaraderie she had with her fellow pilots and the high she got from being miles above the action. When she does bomb targets, she can now see body parts fly, heat sensors decreasing, lives snuffed before her eyes. The monotony and weight of what she's doing wears on her, and soon, the gray she sees on screen creeps into her homelife. She sees cameras everywhere, she stops removing her uniform or having sex with her husband or playing with her kid. She feels alternately terrible and godlike; she can't turn off or disconnect; sleep is hard but it's all she craves.

This is heavy stuff, but it's not, in the end, terribly surprising. Nor, somehow, does it go as deep as it could. Some of this is the play itself. War is hell, no matter how you approach it. But, then, what else? I don't need the theater to solve--or even to discuss--contemporary issues, but Grounded seems to need more connections to bigger things; to paint a larger or more detailed picture. It feels, ultimately, as repetitive and withholding as its sole character.

It doesn't help that Hathaway, while focused and intense, doesn't fully deliver emotionally. She is quite skilled and certainly likable enough, but her depiction doesn't really develop from there. She's fine with the braggadocio and the posturing at the start of the show, but seems somehow less comfortable with the character's loose, messy side, which clearly exists beneath the cool control and swagger. The awesome sex she simulates having with her husband seems a tad too pretty and tame; the manic burst of euphoric energy she experiences just before the final breakdown seems stagy, careful, and practiced; the shakier, less controlled motions she goes through before the final breakdown just a little too rehearsed.

Grounded is hardly a waste of time: Hathaway has a tough job in keeping her character's rote, mind-numbing routine and gradual breakdown seem interesting, and she does her best. But I'd have liked more frayed edges and less control than, perhaps, she can deliver.

Taymor's direction is typically attractive and brisk, highlighted with the stunning use of light and projected images. It can be a little obvious sometimes--Hathaway's pantomiming along with some of the stuff she describes feels like overkill, as do some of the less inventive aspects of the sound design--but is generally effective. And damn, what that woman can do with a pin-spot and a handful of sand is worth the price of admission.

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