In Character Productions’ Grounded is an intense one-woman show. George Brant’s 2013 dramatic monologue features Joan Smith as an Air Force combat pilot relegated to piloting drones after an unplanned pregnancy. Directed by Jessica Phelps West in the black box Bowen Theatre at Maryland Hall, it is a searing look at the psychological effects of drone warfare.
Joan Smith dominates the stage as the Pilot, narrating her journey from the joy of flying a jet in “the blue” to the initial monotony of “the grey” screens of the drone. One of the guys, she thrusts her pelvis when describing sex and enthusiastically talks about falling in lust and then love with Eric. Moved to operating drones, or “the Chair Force” as she calls it, she blends skepticism and sarcasm with trying to make the best of it and appreciating being closer to her new family. She rocks out to music on the commute to the base. Engaging in combat, she grips the arms of the chair, her voice tense with anticipation.
Watching her slow descent into madness is equally engaging and disturbing. She lies on the floor, curled up in a fetal position. She pounds her head with her hands as she tries unsuccessfully to “clap out” of the job and return to her family. Her voice fills with desperation and fear and she drops to her knees. Even with her back to the audience, facing the screens, she commands attention. Her final scene is full of anger and power, like a god passing judgment, as she has so often done with her drone strikes.
Scenic and Costume Designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay create a sparse but effective set. One plush rolling office chair serves as drone seat, car, and plane. The Pilot’s flight suit looks authentic, with various insignia and patches. Behind the stage are four screens, on which Projection Designer Adrian D. Cameron shows various images, from starry nights and a desert highway to the gray video screens of the drone. Toward the end, the screens are used in a surprising way that implicates the whole audience.
Soundscape Artist and Composer Michael Keck throws out radio chatter and the sounds of missiles firing and aircraft taking off, as well as music (AC/DC plays a large role, as well as, surprisingly, the My Little Pony TV show theme song). Lighting Designer Mary Parker enhances the emotional atmosphere with many lighting changes. The lights darken as the Pilot operates the drone, especially during suspenseful moments. At the end, bright interrogation-like lights shine behind her, bringing the audience into her drama.
Jessica Phelps West does a wonderful job as Director. The energy and drama remain high throughout all 90 minutes, and the suspense gradually builds to a powerful moment, keeping the audience hooked. With its subject matter and language, the play is not for children or the faint of heart but should prompt thoughtful reflections about the moral and psychological costs of drone warfare. To encourage this, Touchstones Discussion Project, an educational nonprofit that leads discussions in various settings, will run a conversation about the play after each Sunday performance. Be sure to see it!
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Grounded plays through August 20, 2023, presented by In Character Productions performing in the Bowen Theatre at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts – 801 Chase Street, Annapolis, MD. For tickets ($35), call the box office at 410-280-5640 or purchase online. Post-show discussions, led by Touchstones Discussion Project, will take place after Sunday matinee performances.
Bios for the cast and creative team are online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional inside the building and theater.