By CHRISTA McINTYRE
For 80 minutes one woman stands on stage, exploring through a visceral poetry contemporary anxiety, paranoia, and the realities of modern conflict, both inside and outside of us. Since its premiere in 2012, George Brant’s hit play Grounded has been making waves from New York to London to Melbourne to San Fransisco and back again, earning a Smith Prize and an Edinburgh Fringe First Award along the way. Now it’s stirring audiences in Portland, at Coho Productions, which, on the verge of its 20th anniversary, is still pushing the edges by producing this stark and daring play.
Besides the spellbinding actor herself, Rebecca Lingafelter, the CoHo stage has just two props: a chair and a platform. In the first 10 minutes we become familiar with all the major characters: the pilot, who’s been taken out of her fighter plane and reassigned to a Nevada desert trailer, where she operates drones aimed at targets thousands of miles away; the military; the war (in this case, the one on terror); and family. The pilot, who is never named, has spit-shined boots, a perfectly pressed uniform, and long blonde hair held in a military braid. By the end of the performance the braid comes partially undone.
Lingafelter’s pilot chooses the blue, but somehow we know it was her best way out: military service offered her freedom. She tells us rough and sure of her life before the liaison that indirectly brings her back to ground: the plane, winning all of her missions, fighting the physics of G forces, having a second intuition that always brings her back home. Home, though, is awkward: it isn’t the endless sky and pride and ego of being the best war pilot. She listens to rock and roll. She is the unknown hero who appreciates the little things in life. She cues up at the pool table and is top man after missions, but men rarely approach her. Eric, the one who does, is the one.
It takes stamina to win a war, and stamina to act out an odyssey alone. Lingafelter, as the pilot, is tough, in uniform, and a woman. She stands to order with the exact precision an officer would be expected to give, but her vulnerability as a human is still there. The formalities are genuine. Anger is, too, with human spit, force and adrenaline. It’s hard to be the breadwinner, the captain, the mother, the soldier, the wife, the lover and the friend. Grounded is entrancing: as we witness and participate with an actor, the lines of courage, determination and identity become blurred.
In a runaway romance, the pilot and Eric have a daughter and marry. The child isn’t well, and the pilot has her first experience at being grounded. She becomes a caretaker and a nurse, and loses her footing in military life. The fates, it seems, have stolen her away. When she returns to duty, the war has changed. War is peace; it is seconds and thousands of miles away, but exact and sure. There is no cockpit, there are no G forces. War for the pilot comes in a box, a drone that can be dismantled, a Cyclops which can travel and see all. The pilot is not in the blue, but in a box in the desert, staring at a box and destroying the enemy.
Using a straight and simple language of life, duty, survival, sex and loyalty, Lingafelter guides us to the next half of the play, where dysphoria makes chaos and pain lyrical. The pilot’s agony is real, yet we are never sure of where the threat comes from. The eye becomes all-prevailing, the one who watches, the one who takes away our ability to self-rely, to self-assess. The war is no longer a good guy versus bad guy matter: we are all the innocent, and can all become the enemy. We empathize as Lingafelter looks at us directly, and it is a sweet coming-home realization that we all make plans with the best of intentions, but the world changes, and sometimes people are sacrificed.
Life presents many occasions to question technology, media, military, and privacy. Brant’s seductive play gives us breathing space to insert our own experiences. We have all struggled, individually and in groups, to make a place for our own inventions side by side: our lives and our machines. In Grounded, we see how a play is a living thing – not a movie or website that tries to direct our opinion and is, in the end, a projection of computers placed upon a screen. This play makes no assumptions about our values or judgment of another person’s life. The only outcome is understanding. Under Isaac Lamb’s sensitive and intent direction, Lingafelter rivetingly acts out a difficult story that turns out bigger than itself: at the end, we all walk away with more questions and a deeper sense of our own humanity.
Grounded continues through May 23 at CoHo Theatre. Ticket and schedule information are here.