The Pilot lives to fly and drop bombs on the desert. She has an emotional bond with her F-16, named Tiger. She feels transcendentally one with “the blue.” And she thrills almost spiritually to watch her targets disintegrate “to desert, to particles, to sand.”
She’s been a warrior, in constant and arousing danger as she wages battle from the sky. So she’s beyond pissed when, after an unexpected pregnancy, she’s reassigned to what she derides as “the Chair Force:” fighter-bombing remotely, via drone.
The Pilot’s initiation into this modern warfare is the story of “Grounded,” a one-woman drama by George Brant, which is onstage through Sept. 26 at the Theater of Monmouth. Directed by Dawn McAndrews, the show stars the devastating Amber McNew in a superb, unsettling production.
Our protagonist is still a fighter pilot, her boss reassures her. But now she’s a fighter pilot who works from a Barcalounger in a trailer in Las Vegas; a warrior who comes home every night to her husband and daughter. This time-clock-punching mode of warfare is at once “a gift” for family unity, as her husband delights, and fundamentally disorienting for the Pilot.
As she puts it: “It would be a different book, ‘The Odyssey,’ if Odysseus came home every day, every single day. A very different book.”
And yet on she goes, coming and going between worlds, on Monmouth’s sparsely appointed stage. She leaves the bare bench that represents home and arrives at a chair, centered under long, grid-lined bars hung over the stage. They look like the borders of a scope viewfinder. They look like the columns of an Olympian temple. The lights go low and blue. The Pilot sits down, stares at a desert thousands of miles away, and begins her workday of war.
The Pilot is tough, proud, profane, and aggressively mission-focused. “Tap the thumb,” she recalls of an F-16 mission. “Boom, goes Saddam’s dipshit army.” She’s frankly sexual, and the dom partner in bed with her husband, who fetishizes her fighter-pilot suit. And she’s impatient with emotions or anything frou-frou. She vows that her young daughter “will not be a hair-tosser, a cheerleader, a stupid sack of shit,” and is not happy to see the house invaded by pink ponies.
At work, the vibe is the opposite of pink ponies. The script brings us vivid and often harrowing details of her job – the specs of the drone, which can stay aloft for 40 hours at a time; the boredom of months of 12-hour shifts in which nothing happens; the horror as the Pilot stares at a “mound” of their own soldiers’ bodies, watching as their thermal readings cool.
The Pilot is hard, complicated, and unapologetically aroused by blowing people up. She’s also funny, candid, self-aware, and eminently likable. McNew gives the Pilot the nuanced and deeply sympathetic characterization that’s crucial for this show’s intense nonstop monologue, as the Pilot grapples with her own pride and longings, the implications of joystick warfare, and the ubiquity of surveillance that she observes both on and off the job.
“It’s not a fair fight,” the Pilot concedes of her work. But her pulse nonetheless quickens to fight it. After initially scorning her new desk job, she grows intoxicated with its power and her own omniscience. “The screen is small,” she says, “but it becomes your world.” Yet the boundaries between her two worlds soon become dangerously permeable.
It’s thanks to this character-driven focus that Brant can address the big-ticket issues in “Grounded:” modern warfare and surveillance, with such compelling rhetorical subtlety. “Grounded” is not an anti-war play, per se, and Brant frames its ambivalence about drones around what happens not to its targets, but to one singular woman, wife, and mother controlling a joystick – a woman who starts to see her own car on the screen, driving through the Middle-Eastern desert.
The virtuosic McNew has been a highlight of this year’s Monmouth repertory season, and “Grounded” caps it with her most remarkable and penetrating performance yet – an endurance feat of intelligence and embodiment. Angular and wiry, McNew gives a hypnotically somatic performance.
She lets us see the Pilot’s body working out her love, unease, fear, or euphoria just in advance of her very active brain. She ripples with tension, flicks her limbs in impatience and nerves, suddenly finds herself crying, seems to hover godlike above her own body. We watch her eyes widen at the screen, increasingly enthralled with what they survey, her body held so straight and still that the slightest turn of her wrist gains thrilling drama.
Onstage alone for nearly an hour and 45 minutes, McNew delivers a wide-ranging and emotionally demanding monologue, vividly voicing secondary characters – her commander’s condescending drawl, her husband’s clear-toned affection – along with the Pilot’s own evolution from drone skeptic to oracular drone divinity. There are reckonings, of course. Her final words, spoken with brimstone clarity, took the breath from my chest.
Brant’s play premiered in 2012, and we need only scan today’s headlines to recall how relevant drone warfare remains. The Pilot’s tortuous arc suggests that all war may be hell, but that a forever war we wage at a distance – omniscient as gods, removed from age-old human-to-human confrontation – comes with its own special hell of consequences.
Whatever we’re doing to the people in the screens, “Grounded” suggests, we might be doing worse to ourselves.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.