Now through the end of June, Studio Theatre concludes its “New British Invasion” series by presenting the Gate Theatre of London’’s acclaimed production of Grounded. The winner of the first prize of last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe, Grounded shows the making and unraveling of an American drone pilot in a tense one-woman psychodrama.
The audience enters to see a woman in a flight suit posing proudly in a cube of electric blue light, enclosed by translucent scrim. One has the sense that actress Lucy Ellinson is in an aquarium, or, more grimly, a jar of formaldehyde. She looks out at the audience with a brave and patient expression. The blue is drained from the set, and a projection of pixilated digital fragments plays over a collage of garbled soundbytes, and our pilot greets us from a cube of bright white light.
Ellinson launches the play with urgency and gusto, pushing us through the exposition at jet speed. In a few short minutes, she takes us with her on a mission in an F-16 into her beloved “blue”, falls in love, becomes pregnant, marries and has her child. Her monologue screeches to a halt as she recounts finding out that she won’t be returning to the war or to her plane, but is being relegated to what she calls the “Chair Force”—flying drones. Instead of flying solo through the “blue”, she will work out of a trailer in Nevada, staring at a screen of gray.
She’s devastated, but sees the silver lining–she can go home to her husband and daughter every night, and “the threat of death has been removed” from their lives. These two changes turn out to be mixed blessings. Now that the thrill of flying is gone, her only source of satisfaction comes when she has the opportunity to kill the enemy, whom she refers to as “the guilty.” And is it really such a blessing to come home from war every day, to see your family just moments after bombing the enemy? As a drone pilot, she has to adjust to playing God through a little gray screen and to maintaining parallel lives as a civilian and soldier. The psychic tensions rise, and while the threat of death is removed, the drone pilot finds herself in more and more danger.
Closes June 29, 2014
The Studio Theatre
1501 14th St. NW Washington
1 hour, 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Ellinson’s precise and well-researched performance captures the spirit of the American soldier. Her characterization taps into the hallmark blends of levity and severity, crudeness and good manners associated with the armed forces, but she never falls back on cliché. Her remarkable treatment of the play’s imagery brings us deep into the world of the pilot. Ellinson shows tremendous range in depicting the thrill of flight, the tedium of drone missions, the pain of not being her best for her family. The importance of pacing to a solo show is not lost on her—I appreciated her rapid treatment of the narrative passages in favor of savoring the more detailed scenes.
The crisp, perfectly integrated design by Oliver Townsend (set), Mark Howland (lighting), Tom Gibbons (sound), and Benjamin Walden (projections) contributed to the sense of increasing isolation experienced by the drone pilot. The play of lights and projections on the scrim and the white floor of the cube allowed the pilot to, at times, seem very present and connected to the audience, and, at other times, made her look like she was far away, being viewed from a monitor of sorts. A relevant detail of the design which is not readily apparent to the audience is the fact that the actress is unable to see us from the stage. Like the one-way glass of a holding cell, or like the “guilty” ones viewed from the night-vision cameras of drones, the scrim enclosing the set is opaque from the performer’s perspective.
With Grounded, playwright George Brant explores the challenges of a situation that is new to our times—warfare in which the threat of harm is removed for one side—as well as the more amorphous and universal struggle of navigating reality in a digital world. By showing the ways drone war can still be dangerous for the pilot, her family, and her country, Brant’s play places us at a fascinating intersection of the political and personal.
Grounded at Studio Theatre offers the chance to see an impeccable, award-winning production by the Gate Theatre of London. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.
Grounded by George Brant . Directed by Christopher Haydon . Featuring Lucy Ellinson . Set and Costume: Oli Townsend . Lighting: Mark Howland . Sound: Tom Gibbins . Video Productions: Benjamin Walden . Produced by Gate Theatre and Studio Theatre . Reviewed by J. Robert Williams.
Chris Klimek . City Paper
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
David Siegel . ShowBizRadio
Roger Catlin . MDTheatreGuide
John Stoltenberg . Magic Time
Tanya Pai . Washingtonian
Robert Michael Oliver . DCMetroTheaterArts