When audiences file into Everyman Theatre for performances of George Brant's gripping one-act, one-actor play "Grounded," they are greeted with the sight of a figure sitting motionless onstage, facing a wall covered with large TV monitors. There is no image displayed, just wavy, jittery lines, waiting for a transmission.
The horizontal shimmers that spread silently across this bank of screens suggest waves on the sea reflecting sunlight, an apt image for a work that thrusts you into a sea of moral ambiguity.
The woman in the chair who finally stirs and speaks is a U.S. fighter pilot with lots of experience fighting in the Middle East and a desire to keep on flying missions. It's not so much a case of patriotic duty as it is the thrill of soaring through the sky, where "you are alone in the vastness and you are the blue."
While on leave back in the States, the pilot unexpectedly meets an appealing man and begins an affair. In short order, she has a child, a husband and a new order from the Air Force.
Being a mother and wife is OK with her; being grounded in the "Chair Force" is not.
From a desk in a trailer on a base in the desert outside Las Vegas, she guides drones 8,000 miles away that hover over another desert, ready to hunt and destroy elusive enemies.
When the pilot was dropping bombs from her F-16, she was "long gone by the time the boom happens." Now, through the unblinking, penetrating eye of an unmanned plane, she doesn't just see her targets, but makes out their shapes and genders and can tell exactly what happens to them.
That crucial difference will forever alter this seasoned flier. It just may alter you, too.
The combination of a play that challenges us to consider the moral and mortal conflict that is so much a part of our dangerous world, a brilliant performance by Everyman resident artist Megan Anderson as the pilot, and a deeply evocative production superbly directed by Derek Goldman delivers quite the gut-punch.
Clocking in at a mere 70 minutes, "Grounded" packs in more incident and emotion than many an evening-length work. Like the hit TV cable show "Homeland," the play puts you uncomfortably close to the chilling reality behind the war-on-terror headlines.
Burrowing into Brant's taut script, Anderson creates a fully fleshed-out character. You never learn the pilot's name, but you feel that you know everything else about her, can see what she sees, understand what she feels.
Anderson's tour de force is especially notable for wonderfully subtle touches. When the pilot talks about home life — "Keeps me at home; keeps me away from the blue" — the actress drops the volume of her voice on the word "blue." The change happens in a flash, less than the 1.2 seconds it takes for a command to be carried out by a drone, but the exquisitely wistful effect lasts and lasts.
Giving a wry look off to the side whenever trying to convince you that she's not proud of herself; expressing the hope that her daughter won't grow up to be a useless "hair-tosser"; fretting over the spying done on all of us all the time; getting caught up in the business of long-distance warfare from Nevada, where the "threat of death [is] removed" — Anderson makes each shift of tone, mood and place register.
Goldman's imaginative direction has the actress using a great deal of the nearly bare stage so that there is never a danger of slipping into static monologue. The production is made all the more involving by the deftly designed set (Luciana Stecconi), projections (Jared Mezzocchi), lighting (Harold F. Burgess II) and sound (Eric Shimelonis).