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In high-flying ‘Grounded,’ female fighter pilot gets a painfully close-up view of war’s horror

Submitted by on Nov 1, 2016 – 11:02 pm

 

The drone 'pilot' (Amber Kelly) surveys a map of the desert her plane will patrol. (Travis Taylor)Review: “Grounded” by George Brant, produced by Theater of Thought at Pride Arts Center through Nov. 6 ★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson

It’s like nothing else, the F-16 fighter pilot declares: alone in the blue, just you and this amazing airplane. You unload your rockets, bombs, whatever, and before they even go boom, you’ve peeled back into that boundless sky and headed toward base – to join the guys, your fellow aces, down a few beers and swap stories. For the remarkable woman in George Brant’s monodrama “Grounded,” that’s how it’s always been. Until now.

For the ace fighter pilot (Amber Kelly), it's a long fall to controlling drones. (Travis Taylor)This strutting, self-assured, insuperable U.S. Air Force warrior of the skies is, indeed, a female, though maybe not exactly what a lot of guys look for in the opposite sex. She’s not a hair-tosser, as she derisively frames gals who gravitate to familiar roles like, say, cheerleader. Still, female our pilot is, and – to get right to the pivot upon which her life is about to turn – she becomes pregnant. Which quickly grounds her. Skyrocketing G forces and pregnancy are not a match made in, well, the heavens.

Playing the girl in the flight suit, in this first effort by the new Chicago company Theater of Thought, is Amber Kelly. And right up front, one must offer a brisk salute (her character is, after all, a major) for the sheer courage required by this prodigious assignment. For about 80 minutes, the solitary actor must sustain a narrative arc that blows through arrogance, shock, dismay, resignation, confusion, boredom and terror. In the performance I saw, Kelly hit most of those marks dead center.

The pregnancy comes from an out-of-the-blue relationship with a rare bird: a guy who finds the idea of a kick-ass girl fighter pilot to be cool, whereas most of the boys (she says) simply cannot deal with it. So now she’s an earthbound mom. But as her newborn daughter begins to grow, and with her mate’s encouragement, the action-hungry mamma checks in with her commanding officer, who welcomes her back and promises she’ll be piloting the latest thing. Excellent, she says. She’ll miss the F-16 – her Tiger, as she fondly named it. But to be handed the stick of the latest and greatest, wow: Lead me to it.

Rest becomes a fitful thing for the emotionally stressed pilot (Amber Kelly). (Travis Taylor)Kelly conveys the pilot’s adrenaline rush, her rekindled fire, with the rising exuberance and starry-eyed anticipation of one who has just received a new lease on life. She’s back, as if she’d never been away. And then comes the hammer stroke: The hot new thing is a remote-controlled drone. Her plane will take to the wild blue yonder, all right; she, however, will be maneuvering the thing over some desert in the Middle East from a windowless trailer in the desert a short drive from her new home in Las Vegas.

This will be her revised pilot’s life: warfare half a world away by remote control for 12 hours a day, then home to be with her family, sleep, and drive again to the trailer in the desert.

Her desert. As opposed to that other desert. But the hours of staring at video images of a distant mass of gray sand begin to bleed into the hours spent driving across the Nevada sand. Sometimes she gets a road kill on that far desert: a cluster of combat-age males busying themselves on a roadside ahead of an approaching American convoy. Here Kelly effectively becomes the pilot of old: Squeeze the trigger and, Good-by! There is a difference, though.

X will mark the target and a crisis point for the pilot (Amber Kelly). (Travis Taylor)Before, from her Tiger, she never saw the result. The body parts flying into the air. After a few of those hits, and a good many more treks back and forth across her own desert, the pilot begins to grow conscious of the human factor: Just as sand is sand, people are people. Or something like that. The transformation of Kelly’s pilot from cool-hand, God-like flying ace to a person – a mother – at the levers of death is palpable, unnerving. She gets some counseling, but soon waves it off. Then comes the nosedive.

New assignment: Intel says a top enemy officer is in that other sand pile. Find him and take him out. The hunt is long, slow, numbing. Blurring. When clarity comes, it also brings a convulsing epiphany. Rockets boom, and lives on two gray deserts are shattered.

Kelly brings off the pilot’s last, desperate speech, an agonizing cri du coeur, with blistering force, like a bomb blast that erupts from the core of the soul. And this after singly powering well over an hour’s emotional churn. If at times the need to address viewers on both sides of an alley stage left the actor speaking to neither group, I’m inclined to place that problem at the feet of director Lexi Saunders – though she also must be credited with the unfussy animation that kept the play on point.

Ben Zeman’s floor projections contribute immensely to our sense of being there, looking down on that faraway desert from the drone’s eye. Through Zeman’s map, we track the monotonous expanse, observe the relentless search, and resonate to a terrible finality.

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