- Courtesy of rob strong
- Megan Anderson
The applause at a curtain call congratulates the actors and also signals that an imaginary world must yield to a real one. At Thursday night's preview of Grounded at Northern Stage, the curtain call was the only shaky moment in a haunting solo performance. Megan Anderson stood drained and briefly uncertain of how to connect to an audience she'd carried in the palm of her hand for 75 intense minutes. She had to let go of her character, but tears and sweat still marked her. And she likely left a mark on many audience members, who won't soon forget her character's emotional journey.
The staging is exquisitely simple: wide platform, one chair, one costume, one actor. Yet the production is high tech, augmented by lighting, music, projections and sound that extend the character's presence. Anderson plays a nameless F-16 fighter pilot, a major in the Air Force. She's a woman so alive to her own ability that her shit-kicking confidence is earned, not insolent. Her strut is assertive but economical, feet planted squarely, head back and eyes looking bravely outward.
The pilot is happiest when she's in flight, in "the blue." She loves the danger and the speed, and never wants to take off the flight suit that signifies her membership in an elite, mostly male group. She can't mask her pride and doesn't need to in her world of fighter jocks. But relationships aren't simple. "I take the guy spot, and they don't know where they belong," she remarks.
When our pilot meets civilian Eric during a leave, she's pleased to find a man who is not threatened by a tough-as-nails woman. They hook up, and it means enough that she misses him when leave is over. She's careful not to call it love but enjoys what the role reversal means. "I've got my little woman at home, know who I'm fighting for," she says. "All that true corn, true cheese."
Then she's yanked out of the sky. The Air Force grounds her when she becomes pregnant. Worried her pregnancy will dissipate "whatever fly-girl fantasy he's got going," she discovers Eric is happy about the child; they marry and start raising a daughter. And she begins a new job, piloting a Reaper drone that allows her to go to war each morning and come home to her family at night.
It's an exile from the sky she calls the "chair force." She doesn't want to give up the freedom and solitude of real flying for a job that requires a parking space and sticks her in a small trailer for 12-hour shifts. But she takes it, and at first it's the ultimate "having it all" scheme: She's part of her daughter's childhood, and America puts none of its troops at risk when it kills its enemies.
"The threat of death is eliminated," she notes. But she never wanted safety. And soon she discovers that a soldier doesn't want to come home from war each night. Searching for the shapes of "military-aged males" on the ground in Afghanistan or Iraq — the theater of war is never named — she flies a plane that's a camera with missiles, an eye that kills after a 1.2-second satellite delay.
Now the pilot is no longer a lone-wolf warrior but an employee who's scrutinized at her console. And when she takes her daughter to a mall, the surveillance camera in a dressing room doesn't look so harmless to her. An eye in the sky is as close to God as man can become, she thinks, with the power to judge a person guilty from observation alone, and then to annihilate.
Grounded isn't policy analysis but rather a portrait of one woman whose wartime trauma is experienced in an ergonomic chair in an air-conditioned trailer. At first, she feels the same exhilaration she had hunting an enemy from her lonely cockpit. But after hours using her flying skills to make the Reaper "linger" in endless, omnipotent surveillance, she experiences cracks in her sense of the world, and of what's real and what's right. Fearless in the blue of the sky, she's destroyed by the gray of a screen.
Playwright George Brant takes us into the mind of a pilot who loses the armor of her mental toughness as she's deadened by balancing life and death on her trigger finger. Brant's character speaks with an unselfconscious clarity that approaches poetry. The play is constructed with almost choral repetition to build each emotional plateau.
Director Derek Goldman's blocking defines the character's two worlds: She describes her pilot's life on the right, the empty desert drive home running through the center, and home life on the left. The delineation is crisply conveyed, but when her mental lines start to blur, the way she uses space does, too. A single-character show is typically built through an intense partnership between director and actor, and Goldman created conditions in which Anderson could take emotional risks.
Anderson's physical and vocal strength is utterly commanding. She doesn't demand attention with showy energy but draws it from the viewer by presenting her character with forthright power. The performance is the essence of an actor inhabiting a character. Anderson presents all the external details, from the head tilt of military bearing to a little laugh that conceals her boasts, then settles deep inside the character to let what wrenches the pilot wrench her.
The creative team has built a magnificent physical realization of the character's internal story. Set designer Luciana Stecconi fills the theater's back wall with rectangles of varying sizes; projections span this grid or align with individual tiles. In addition, two sets of monitors sit left and right, each a group of nine screens mortised together. Projection designer Jared Mezzocchi uses images almost musically as harmonics for Anderson's performance.
Eric Shimelonis composed original music and integrates sound effects to produce the artificial world the pilot inhabits. The lighting by Harold F. Burgess II complements the projections and seems to release the character's thoughts. Ivania Stack's perfect flight suit is the last word in costume as character.
When the pilot speaks to the audience, it's an interior commentary made external, not a dialogue or an exhortation. Until the very end, that is, when she talks to the people watching her. That group is both her Air Force superiors and, unambiguously, the audience. In a world of surveillance, responsibility and individual identity grow diffuse. The pilot loses her way and cautions us not to lose ours.