Rarely has the phrase “torn from the headlines” burned with as much relevance as it does with Grounded, the mesmerizing show that opened Sunday at the Public Theater. George Brant’s one-woman play about America’s shift to drone warfare may have been written four years ago (and performed elsewhere around the country), but its divisive subject is as current as the front page of today’s New York Times.
And its relevance is heightened by the fact that a war perceived mainly in the abstract becomes intensely personal when the reality comes home: The Vietnam War began losing popular support when it became an unavoidable dinner guest via TV screens on the evening news, and now accounts of innocent lives being lost to drone strikes have re-introduced the Orwellian phrase “collateral damage” into the national dialogue as the Obama administration tries to finesse the latest public relations disaster with the news that an American hero held hostage was killed in a recent drone attack. How many more innocents have died in these vaunted surgical strikes?
Grounded may or may not be a protest piece, depending on your point of view. But it’s unassailably dramatic, kinetic and provocative in a production that demonstrates Anne Hathaway’s charisma and range, and presents another triumph for Julie Taymor, showing once again that this master of spectacle is just as imaginative and ingenious working on an intimate scale as she is on larger canvases.
Hathaway plays a young woman identified only as The Pilot. Brant’s description of the requirements for playing her are hilarious:
She should possess normal color vision and meet other physical weight requirements, with no more than 32% body fat. She should be able to complete a 1.5-mile run in 13 minutes and 56 seconds or less, as well as complete 50 sit-ups and 27 push-ups in a timed test of one minute each. She should have graduated at the top of her class and have a well-rounded education. She should possess heightened situational awareness.
More simply put, we must believe that the actress playing her must convey credibility as an ace fighter pilot, a requirement Hathaway fulfills without breaking a sweat. She could have stepped out of the set of The Right Stuff.
In the opening minutes of this 85-minute monologue, The Pilot is all swagger, speaking about hanging out with the guys after a mission and how intimidating she is to most men: “I have missiles to launch…I rain them down on the fortresses and concrete below me. The structures that break up the sand, I break them back down…to particles, sand. At least I think I do — I’m long gone by the time the boom happens.”
If a civilian manages to make his way to her in the bar, he’s usually put off when she explains her work: “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.”
But when a guy with the right stuff finally does come along, she ends up pregnant, married and while happily the mother of a baby girl, eager to get back into “the blue.” When she does report back for duty, she’s dismayed to find she’s been assigned to Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas, headquarters of what she and her pals derisively call the “Chair Force.” But she is soon won over by the technology and the tension of the hunt as her 12-hour shifts tracking “the bad guys” occasionally produces a satisfying strike.
On the other hand, the technology proves to be strangely more personal than her high-atmosphere flying missions: Sensors measure the diminishing heat given off by dying bodies on the ground and visual gear for the first time allows her to recognize body parts flying through the air. All of this begins to take its toll even as her daughter becomes more and more the center of her life.
In exquisitely calibrated increments, Grounded becomes less like The Right Stuff and more like Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 anti-war masterpiece Johnny Got His Gun, about a World War I soldier who has lost everything — arms, legs, face — except his mind and, most movingly, his memory.
Taymor’s production, designed by Riccardo Hernandez and lit by Christopher Akerlind, heightens our sense of Grounded taking place essentially in The Pilot’s mind as she tells her story. In the three-quarter round Anspacher Theater, the central playing area is backed by a reflective wall that extends the desert — Pakistan, maybe, at first, then Nevada — into the distance. The highway from home to work seems like an endless American vision, at once monotonous and full of possibility. Elliot Goldenthal’s score and soundscape, as well as the projections by Peter Negrini, also heighten the contrasting effects of physical expanse and psychological internalization.
Working with little more than a chair and her pilot’s uniform, Hathaway charges through this challenging monologue, written virtually as a free-verse poem that builds and builds in power — until writer, director and character merge in a single, indelible unity of vision I won’t soon forget.