Everyman Theatre to give Baltimore premiere of a play 'ripped from the headlines'

The Baltimore Sun
Think drones are for taking cool pictures and maybe delivering packages? You need to be 'Grounded.'

"Grounded," the provocative play by George Brant that receives its Baltimore premiere at Everyman Theatre this week, suggests a morphing of journalists' reports from Iraq or Afghanistan and an episode of Showtime's "Homeland."

The focus of this one-woman, one-act work is a female F-16 fighter pilot who has to give up flying missions over the Middle East after an unexpected pregnancy.

Her military career resumes when she becomes a member of what she dismissively calls the "Chair Force," pulling 12-hour shifts in a base near Las Vegas. There, she's still a pilot — remotely. She guides drones 8,000 miles away, seeking fresh targets.

"The play feels ripped from the headlines," says Derek Goldman, director for the Everyman production of "Grounded." "It's very much about the politics and ethics of drones, but it's also about much larger human themes — what's real in our lives and what's virtual; the feeling that everything we do is being witnessed."

The Ohio-based Brant was thinking about those issues raised by drones when he arrived in Baltimore in 2011 to mentor writers at the Wordbridge Playwrights Laboratory. He carved out two days for himself, enough time for him to write the first draft of "Grounded," which received its first readings at that conference.

In short order, the piece attracted attention. It has had at least 20 productions by theater companies on both sides of the Atlantic since its 2013 premiere. Everyman's staging is a co-production with Olney Theatre Center, which will present the work early next year.

The play's subject matter is not likely to become dated any time soon.

"A drone just flew into an erupting volcano," Brant says. "The Navy is testing drone boats. There's talk about drones making deliveries for Amazon, which may seem to put more of a smiley face on it. People expect a drone to be a miracle machine that solves all the world's problems. People are pretty comfortable with their use."

Brant is not.

"When I read that in his first three months, [President] Obama [authorized] three times as many drones as [President] Bush did in his eight years, I thought, oh my God," Brant says. "As someone who voted for Obama, I felt somewhat implicated by that."

The more the playwright read about drones, the more inspiration he had for a play.

"When I looked into the pilots who operated the drones, I got intrigued," he says. "I assumed that drones in the Middle East were piloted from the country where they were flying. When I learned they were guided from a base outside Las Vegas, 8,000 miles away, the wheels really started turning. Las Vegas is a place so unreal to being with, with fake pyramids of Egypt. It seemed too perfect."

In "Grounded," the unnamed pilot recounts the experience of adjusting from a war in the skies to one at a computer screen a short drive from the Las Vegas Strip.

There are mental and emotional challenges involved, not only because of the job, but because of the woman's off-duty life. In this kind of combat, she doesn't have to miss people back home; she is home.

"It's a new way to fight," Brant says. "The pilots go home after their shift and have to function as a member of their family. You kill someone, and then go pick up your kid from soccer practice. People don't think about the pilots operating drones. Even the name 'drone' doesn't sound like there's a pilot involved."

For Megan Anderson, the Everyman Theatre resident artist who stars in "Grounded," diving into the sole role has been an education.

"I have so little in common with a fighter pilot — I hate to fly, and I drive like an old lady," Anderson says. "I think she's awesome. She has all of this power, which exhilarates her at first. Then it follows her around like a ghost. When you push the button, you can't fly away, like when you drop bombs from a plane. You have to watch."

There is no shortage of weighty issues in the script of "Grounded," but there is a dearth of stage directions.

"We talk about collaboration a lot in the theater," says Brant, who plans to catch the Baltimore production. "I wanted to put some money where my mouth was and leave this one really open for directors and designers."

That's fine with Goldman, a longtime friend of Brant's. He has found all the guidance he needs just from the text. He has been working with Anderson on emphasizing the humanity of the pilot, and on deciding when and how the actress should connect directly with the audience.

"A lot of one-character plays feel like hosted events, 'An Evening With ____'," Goldman says. "This play is a true drama. Issues of motherhood, love, ambition, politics, the sense of being a citizen — they're are all woven into the character. If people hear this is a 70-minute piece, some will think it's just a little thing, minimalist. Not at all. It is as full in its way as a Shakespeare play."

'Grounded' is in previews Tuesday (a pay-what-you-can performance) through Thursday. The play opens Friday and runs through Nov. 16

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