On Thursday, Dec. 10, Sonorous Road Productions hosted a preview performance of George Brant's Grounded, the story of a fighter pilot who is thrown from the sky by an unexpected pregnancy and forced to pilot drones for the remainder of her career. What sounds like a safer, easier job begins to take its toll on the pilot (Michelle Murray Wells) as she hunts terrorists by day and returns to her family at night.
The entire hour-long, one-woman play provides an in-depth look at a very topical issue – pilots fighting wars remotely – and most importantly, the psychological pressure this causes. Wells was commanding in her small stature from the first moment, standing at attention and staring directly ahead while the audience enters. She gave a heartfelt, intense, and deeply three-dimensional performance as a pilot struggling with gender roles, balancing home and work life, the experience of being an Air Force pilot and a civilian in shifts, and the difficulty of finding the same adventure she had flying a fighter jet while sitting in a trailer. Every day she stared at a screen for twelve hours, her only job to steer the "eye in the sky" drone twelve time zones away, omnipotent and powerless at the same time.
Wells depicted a character who is cocky, self-assured, and sarcastic – until the day when everything changed. Her stream of consciousness narration allowed us to be inside her head while she morphed into "a pilot who needs a parking spot."
Lighting designer Matthew Adelson did an equally fantastic job in creating lighting that helped tell the pilot's story, effortlessly dividing the plain square of performance space into a barracks, a bar, a suburban home, a combat zone, a desert, a cubicle, and even a cockpit. The use of lighting and space is so creative that it felt like a second character communicating throughout the show.
I had the pleasure of bringing to the show my sister, a UNC-Chapel Hill student enrolled in the ROTC program. She is soon to be a Remotely Piloted Aircraft (drone) pilot in the Air Force, due to some unfortunate small mixups in her paperwork that currently preclude her eligibility to fly helicopters or jets. She was profoundly struck by Brant's writing, Wells' performance, and Jerome Davis' direction of this production, saying, "It's very real and covers a lot of ground," but also noting that it was validating in that she knows her own fears are justified. (She graduates in May 2016 and will transition to her assigned training location shortly thereafter.)
The small production team has done a great job putting this show together, and Sonorous Road is an up-and-coming company that provides not only captivating shows but a space for film and theatre students to gather and hone their crafts. Sonorous Road has graciously offered to deliver all of the profits of this production to Military Missions in Action, an organization that has delivered over $4 million in services to retired veterans, active servicemen, and homeless war veterans since 2008.
I should warn more impressionable prospective audience members that the lights and sounds can be sudden and jarring. In addition, the entire production itself is very sensitive and rife with adult language and themes. Those brave enough to put themselves through this terrifyingly disconcerting interpretation of a soldier becoming dehumanized and split between two places will find it worth the discomfort to experience Brant's message.
The play continues through Dec. 20. For details, see the sidebar.