“Most guys don’t like what I do…feel they’re less of a guy around me. I take the guy spot, and they don’t know where they belong.” The female fighter pilot in Grounded
Some reviews beg to be written. Second Thought Theatre’s Grounded by George Brandt has haunted me since I witnessed last Friday the 13th’s opening performance at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys campus. Running through February 4th, this rocket blast of a solo production features regional leading artist Jenny Ledel in her first ever one woman show, with incisive direction by STT’s Artistic Director Alex Organ. When do you get the chance to see over an hour of dynamo Ledel acting her tush off in a high-octane dose? Right here, dear ones. Don’t pass it up.
A rare bird of raptor-inspired plumage, George Brant’s Grounded portrays the story of an impassioned, proud fighter pilot who finds herself grounded when she becomes pregnant. What happens when she returns to active duty after three years and finds that war, as a drone pilot, is a totally different beast? Ledel’s performance will send chills down your spine. Seldom will you witness a play that portrays a woman’s perspectives and instincts with such tangible ferocity as accurately. Ledel bares her knife-edged thespian fangs without reserve as her pilot attempts to merge two conflicting life paths. She balances mommy/ wifey home life with operating a depersonalized machine as a lethal tool of destruction day in, day out. PTSD, the horrific toll of drone warfare, a healthy sex-life and devotion to a young daughter grind together in an endless cacophony of greys, blues, AC/DC snippets and the impassive imagery evoked by soul-stifling, grey deserts thousands of miles apart. Emerge with a gut-wrenching understanding of modern warfare and its deadly impact on all players.
The story on Grounded? “War from a woman’s perspective” is a story not often told. It’s a hot property as company after company inquires after rights to produce it. Producers and directors in China, Libya and Lebanon have expressed interest in mounting it. “Grounded won the National New Play Network’s 2012 Smith Prize, which honors a new play on American politics, leading to well-received productions at the San Francisco Playhouse and at Borderlands Theater in Tucson. It picked up a Fringe First award at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and went on to a twice-extended run at the Gate Theater in London. The London Evening Standard and The Guardian (which called it “a searing piece of writing”) both listed it as among their top 10 plays of 2013.” https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/26/theater/george-brants-play-grounded-brings-him-to-new-york.html? In 2015, Grounded ran Off Broadway at The Public Theatre, with Anne Hathaway as the pilot, directed by Julie Taymor, to positive reviews.
In the Second Thought production, Ledel strides onto a bare stage in her regulation skivvies, dons her flight suit (laid out ceremonially on the floor) and military boots and plops into a straight-backed metal chair to open the show. Projections of fighter planes, a fighter drone, two monotonous deserts, endless blue sky, aspects of Las Vegas and the drone camera’s viewer leading to targeted strikes on “military aged men” flash behind her, oversized, adding context and atmosphere to her rambling tale.
But the play is all Brandt’s spare lyricism surging to life via Ledel’s commanding, creative immersion in her role. She depicts a strong woman who attempts to make rational sense of her ongoing, dehumanizing war routine with daily injections of “conventional home life” with hubby and child. It’s easy to forget that Ledel is “acting” a role, not living each moment in fresh encounter. Her character traverses the stage with a casual, swaggering confidence that reflects her status as a fighter pilot and buoyant self-respect as a woman. Director Organ finesses her arc of disintegration with care, never prompting trite or telegraphed indicating. He encourages the audience to trust, to engage readily with the pilot’s life, until the final moments descend into crushing reality. There’s more than a faint whiff of Greek tragedy in the work’s resolution. Playwright Brandt’s intrigue with President Obama’s increased use of drone warfare drew him to study the subject, and his curiosity about women pilots spurred him to write the work. Fresh, precise, poignant, timely.
“You who watch me and think you are safe, know this, know that you are not safe.”
Aaron Johansen’s comprehensive skill as a lighting designer and Brian McDonald’s versatility and inventiveness as set, sound and props designer provide the pro finish that makes Grounded another first-rate feather in Second Thought Theatre’s production cap. Grounded offers a fascinating evening of soaring, socially relevant theatre.
www.secondthoughttheatre.com for information
All performances of Grounded will take place at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Campus, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Tickets to Grounded can be purchased online at 2TT.co
Photos courtesy of Second Thought Theatre