The Pilot is a warrior.
Gutsy, smart, and tough, she’s flown planes high into the blue over Middle Eastern deserts to drop bombs on “Saddam’s dipshit army.” She thrills to danger, battle, and the sight of her targets disintegrating back into “particles, to sand, to desert.”
So she’s not happy when, reporting back for duty after an unplanned pregnancy, she learns that she’s about to be separated from her beloved F-16, relocated to Nevada, and assigned to what she scornfully calls the “Chair Force.” Soon, she’ll be operating drones over the Middle East from a Barcalounger in a trailer outside of Las Vegas, in George Brant’s harrowing one-woman drama “Grounded.”
It’s onstage now in a harrowing production by Dramatic Repertory Company, with Keith Powell Beyland directing the formidable Casey Turner in a stunning performance at the Portland Stage Studio Theater.
What does it mean to wage war remotely, by staring into a gray screen? For one thing, a dopamine-triggering God complex, as The Pilot compares her trailer to Mount Olympus and starts describing her job as an act of “smiting” the guilty.
It also means some profound cognitive dissonance. “It would be a different book, ‘The Odyssey,’ if Odysseus came home every day, every single day,” The Pilot ponders as her disorientation starts to set in. “A very different book.”
And “Grounded” is, indeed, a very different war story. On the other hand, it also bears a strong resemblance to some of our oldest stories about the dangers of playing God.
Indeed, the intimate theater’s stage is set with a minimalist elegance that mingles the literal and the mythic (set design by Phoebe Parker). Center stage is a lunar circle of white sand, both a nod to the desert settings and a vaguely ritualistic image. In the middle of this circle are concentric squares, like a camera’s eye, and around the sand, the stage is taped off at right angles with lines that resemble a scope’s viewfinder or, perhaps, crude runic marks.
And hanging from the back are five panels of white corrugated metal, like Olympian columns or the walls of The Pilot’s trailer. These hold faint and slowly shifting projected images – of a cheap desert motel, a field of grounded planes, a cross against the clouds of a dusk sky.
With its tensions between the quotidian and the archetypal, the domestic and the epic, “Grounded” is a luxuriously complex role for a talented actor to make her own. In the Theater at Monmouth’s fine production of the show last September, Amber McNew gave a twitchily physical performance, angular and raw-nerved. Turner brings something different and equally compelling to the role. Where McNew leaned into something edgy and other in The Pilot, Turner’s performance allows us closer to what we can relate to: family, love, lust, pride.
Turner lends The Pilot a deceptive softness under her toughness, even a sunniness, that proves fascinatingly jarring both as it appears and as it darkens. She flashes the same bright grin about great sex with her husband as she does about blowing up the “military-aged men” she sees in the gray desert of her screen.
As The Pilot’s own unease grows, Turner veers between emotions with breathtaking speed, nuance, and humanity. Immediately after her booming proclamations about how the guilty “can’t hide from the eye in the sky,” she dials down to a small-voiced, toneless observation of something she hasn’t noticed before on the screen: “Body parts.”
Turner’s performance is especially strong as the separation between The Pilot’s worlds becomes permeable, as she slowly tracks sand beyond the circle and starts seeing her own husband and daughter as if in gray pixels, noticing surveillance cameras around her, and observing her own car in the grey screen desert. In her warrior’s euphoria, The Pilot’s face has seemed immune to gravity, and to shine with the force of the sun itself, but in her moments of confused terror, every muscle in her face is slack, matte, and dragged forcibly earthward.
And Turner is utterly devastating, ferociously vulnerable, as she navigates The Pilot’s final catastrophe, climax, and catharsis – events that pummel us one after the other and then cut out to end the play abruptly, without any reprieve or restoration. We’re left breathless and stricken, awed and nauseous with the implications of living in such close proximity to endless war, its weapons, and its God complex.
“No one is safe,” bellows The Pilot, at once the truth and curse of a fallen God turned oracle. “Boom.”
Who among us can say that she’s wrong?
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Magic close to home
Mainers needn’t fly to Nevada to experience myth, magic, and giant puppets in the desert – at least during June. That’s when Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble presents the world premiere of its new fantasy play, “Caravan of Dreams,” under the sky at the Desert of Maine in Freeport, June 4-26. FMI: https://www.ziggurattheatre.org/.
And check out what magic is ahead from Mad Horse Theater Company at the Get Off The Couch Party Season Reveal & Fundraiser at Oxbow Blending & Bottling, 49 Washington Ave., Portland, on June 7 from 6-8 p.m. The evening will include readings from next season’s plays and a teaser of the company’s upcoming “Homecoming,” a devised work based on “The Odyssey.” FMI: www.madhorse.com.
— Megan Grumbling