The Rep's "Grounded" soars with a tale of a pilot who loses her wings
War is hell.
It was General William Tecumseh Sherman who said this famed phrase during the Civil War, and his words were never more eloquently or pointedly dramatized than in "Grounded," the George Brant play that opened at The Rep's Stiemke Studio.
This is a story of war, both the intensely personal exhilaration and the equally personal fear and loathing that are part of the DNA of the warriors who do our fighting. It's not a tale of the evils and joys of fighting but a tale of one woman who flies and fights in the skies above us.
There are perhaps no more fierce and devoted warriors than the fighter and bomber pilots in the Air Force. Brant's play, directed here by Laura Braza, is focused on a woman pilot for whom nothing in her life has, or ever shall, match her moments "in the blue."
When first we meet the pilot, she is full of herself in a marvelously accurate portrait of the men and women who fly the fastest and kill the most.
A number of years ago, I spoke at the Air Force War School in Las Vegas and had visits from a squadron of pilots who flew both fighters and B-1 bombers. They drank in Milwaukee, slept on my front porch, awoke – some still drunk and some hung over – and climbed into their jets to fly off to a distant land. There is virtually nothing in my life as vivid as the fulsome bravado that seemed almost a birthright once they each got wings on their chests. Fear was never uttered, uncertainty kept at bay and weakness neither admitted nor tolerated.
That is our pilot. She does shots, shoots pool and hangs with the boys. She knows she is a threat to any other man, any regular man. Until she meets Eric and is stunned to find her inner woman in this unique man.
"Most guys don't like what I do. They feel they're less of a guy around me. I take the guy spot, and they don't know where they belong. But not this one. This one's eyes light up. This one thinks it's cool. This one kisses me in the parking lot like the rock star I am. He's not afraid to kiss me. He's Eric."
They spend the last three days of her leave together and then separate. But she is pregnant, and as she well knows, the Air Force doesn't allow pregnant pilots to fly.
And so, she is grounded, "the pilot's nightmare."
Eric is happy about it. They marry and soon have Samantha, "Sam." And while building one world, her other world – the special world – comes crashing down around her. There are no more flights "into the blue." No more letting the missiles fly and leaving before they land. No more hanging with "the boys" and reliving the moments only they have shared.
Now she and her family move to Las Vegas where she will sit behind a screen, use a joystick, be part of a team that includes a 19-year-old who chews gum and unseen voices in her headset. She is a pilot, flying a drone thousands of miles away. She can see the enemy on her screen, all in shades of gray, and when the time comes, when all the pieces fit together, she pushes the button and – boom! – the bad guys disappear in a cloud of smoke and flying body parts.
She is not in the Air Force anymore. She is in the "Chair Force."
Getting used to this is hard on the pilot.
"First day on the job. The war. Whatever. Eric makes me French toast for our extra-special breakfast. He hands me my lunch in a brown paper bag, and I'm off to the desert to be a pilot. To be of use. I park in my spot, and I put on my flight suit and enter a trailer. One of many trailers in a parking lot. An air-conditioned trailer that seals me off completely from all sky, all blue."
Chicago actor Jessie Fisher makes her Rep debut as the pilot in this one woman show. She creates a memorable character with an amazing depth and variety of worlds. There is no mistaking the warrior nor the woman inside this pilot, and the battle that each is fighting with the other.
The production is marked by a marvelous cooperative effort of sound, scene and light that creates a world few of us ever get to see. Whether it's a jet in the air, a bar full of boys, a drive through a Nevada desert or a view of "military age males" being blown up thousands of miles away, the sights and sounds are emotional tugs that grow and grow until the end.
Scott Davis designed the set, Noele Stollmack the lights, Hillary Leben the video and projection design, and Megan B. Henninger the sound. The way these elements combine to create a world for Fisher is breathtaking.
And she inhabits every corner of this world, for better or for worse. She battles her best and worst instincts, hoping to battle to a draw. Fisher is a woman telling a story, not acting the story. We in the audience feel as if we are confidants with this daring and brave fighter.
I don't want to spoil the ending of how this battle ends, but it's an 85-minute flight where the best seat on the plane is inside the Stiemke Studio. War is hell, but this story of war is heaven.
"Grounded" runs through April 2; information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
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