Chicago Theater Review: GROUNDED (Buena Stage @ Pride Arts Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 23, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


amber-kelly-stars-in-groundedIn The Right Stuff Tom Wolfe described a huge “sea change” when the space race went from fighter test pilots to astronauts. In the 1920s through 1950s, high-altitude records were achieved by derring-do hot shots like Chuck Yeager who could fly “by the seat of their pants.” As their exploits evolved into total team work, NASA reduced former aces to highly-trained “spam in a can,” a trapped body at the mercy of Houston and the space capsule. With no ejection seat, each was a captive audience for gore or glory.

A similar thing has happened to modern warfare. Our endless Mideast quagmire has seen a changeover from aerial warriors in F-16s to “eyes in the sky,” drones that can deliver anonymous death from above, operated by outsourced dispatchers 12 time zones and thousands of miles away. That’s the ugly situation in Grounded, Chicago playwright George Brant’s 80-minute one-act solo show. It chronicles a female fighter pilot’s descent into madness or morality. You be the judge.

A Chicago venture from Theater of Thought Company at the Pride Arts Center (formerly Profiles Theatre), Lexi Saunders’ kinetic staging features Amber Kelly as the unnamed operative. A former female Air Force fighter pilot who rejoiced in the purity of smashing the sound barrier and soaring through “the blue,” she married a casino cop named Eric, still hoping to continue her career. After getting pregnant amber-kelly-stars-in-groundedwith a baby girl named Samantha, she finds herself “grounded” (a wonderfully ambiguous term for her frustrations and friction). She’s transferred from active duty on the untold front to a windowless trailer outside Las Vegas; from Air Force to “Chair Force,” as she sardonically puts it.

Commuting to combat, so to speak, and aided by a brash 19-year-old assistant, she peers for hours at a video screen (cunningly coordinated by lighting designer Kara Grimm). It tracks the transmissions of her Grim Reaper drone, an $11 million instrument of death. Capable of flying 40-hour missions, this UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) permits gratuitous, supposedly guilt-free slaughter of jihadi insurgents way below. She’s exhilarated by this real-life video game where, zooming in and panning out, she can follow a convoy until the satellite (the eyes of the drone) sets up the kill shot. And, she gamely assumes with typical American bravado, they must be bad guys or we wouldn’t have terminated them with extreme prejudice.

amber-kelly-starring-in-groundedUnlike conventional campaigns, where Alpha hunters can vary battlefield tensions with blow-outs in the mess hall or canteen, she brings her job back with her, refusing to take off her uniform even at home. But going from ordinary life to surrogate warfare, loving a husband and child at night and blowing up their counterparts half a world away by day—well, it complicates the single-minded focus war requires. Here domestic destruction takes on a whole new meaning.

Yes, she can execute the enemy without risk and with impunity, feeling like Zeus on Mt. Olympus hurling thunderbolts at evildoers. But there’s a sinister spillover: Slowly she begins to confuse one desert with another and the victims with the ones she loves. The trailer has the same mental effect on her that isolated missile silos have had on their dislocated inmates. While pursuing a high-profile “#2” hostile target, she loses it and qualifies for a court martial.

amber-kelly-in-groundedMs. Kelly ups the ante throughout, initially registering (to the sadistic delight of several on opening night) the thrill of the kill, however abstract the satellite feed and projected video. But as the guilt grows along with the pressure, Kelly manages (despite a concentrated script that can only suggest her slow disintegration, not force us to feel it) to fully freak out. We taste her ultimate defeat. She’s her own collateral damage. (The fact that this soldier is a female is, as far as Grounded is concerned, utterly irrelevant. Brant doesn’t intend to disqualify her for combat.)

Besides delivering a case history in self-destruction wrought by remote devastation, Grounded passes judgment on our “endless war” of choice in the Middle East. How is the safe distancing of this drone pilot, cold-blooded annihilation imploding from her trigger finger, any different from the removal of most Americans from the carnage wrought in our name? War never felt so impersonal than now. But some things won’t change. Wedding parties get blown up and children, innocent by definition, die. That’s on us, whether close up or in Nevada.


photos by Travis Taylor

Buena Stage @ Pride Arts Center
4147 N Broadway
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on November 6, 2016
for tickets, visit Theatre of Thought

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