BY SANDY STAGGS
North Carolina Stage Company launched its 2016 season Saturday with the gripping one-woman-show “Grounded,” about a fighter pilot who is “grounded” after pregnancy and reassigned to fly drones.
“Grounded” is staged by Immediate Theatre Project, the Partner Company in Residence at NC Stage Company since 2008 that produces one mainstage production each year, including the stellar “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” last season.
This uniquely-stimulating drama by George Brandt, which paired Anne Hathaway with director Julie Taymor Off-Broadway, is a stunning, compelling work that squarely draws the viewer into the confines of the clandestine culture of the U.S Air Force elite squad of flying aces.
Blythe Coons plays a tough-as-nails unnamed F16 fighter pilot who flies missions over Afghanistan. She finds solace in the “blue” above the clouds, the super-sonic power surge experienced only by an exclusive club of privy military pilots, and an even more uncommon feat for women.
But after she unexpectedly becomes pregnant, the flygirl is transferred from Middle East desert to another desert terrain on the outskirts of Las Vegas to and trained to pilot Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or URVs.
This play is set early in America’s drone program and they are now called RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft).
As first, she is appalled by this notion of remotely flying $3 million toys in but is resigned in the comfort that she is still serving her country in the war on terror and able to go home every day to be a mother and wife
After all, the pilot’s life is no longer in danger and with their pin prick precision; drones vastly reduce the collateral damage for civilians on the ground
But staring at the “gray” (screen) on 12-hour shifts seven days a week, takes its toll.
While her body is no longer spatially in the battlefield “trenches,” the drone technology’s high-resolution images brings the combat closer than expected, and she is not immune from the effects of pressing a singular button and watching bodies being blown to bits with arms and legs flying in the air.
War is not a video game and playing God on the “chair force” comes with caveats – paranoia sets in and she feels the prying eyes even in her local JC Penney dressing room. She longs for the safety of the “blue” and questions her own sanity.
Ms. Coons gives a laser-focused tour-de-force performance here. She exhibits a steely exterior that woman in this league must bear. The have to appear twice as tough as men to be respected. She draws you in and you smply can’t take your eyes of her, hanging on every syllable as if it were scripture.
Her lines are sometimes delivered in a deliberate staccato fashion, recitative but poignant. The script is written with the punch of diary entries as she goes about her robotic routine every day. The tension is unsettling and builds steadily until we become unhinged with her. That’s the power of incredible acting and a testament to what great theatre is supposed to do – make you think and wreak havoc with your emotions.
In fact, I was physically shaking and off-kilter for nearly an hour after Coons’ performance.
NC Stage Company co-founder Charlie Flynn-McIver directs and this unsettling effect is enhanced by the eerie sound design by Todd Weakley and Bill Coonan. The AC/DC song that Coons listens to repeatedly in her car is initially a welcome distraction, but soon becomes a death march.
Willie Repoley, ITP’s co-founder, is production designer for this show and his set is sparse, but highly-effective. A simple flight chair and an enormous trapezoid-shaped video-screen (video design by Robert Klein) allow the audience to focus on Coons and her brilliant portrayal.
CJ Barnwell is Lighting Designer, Catori Swann is Stage Manager with Patrick Brandt assisting.
Discretionary Warning: This play contains strong language, some sexual content, and descriptions of violence and may not be appropriate for children.
“Grounded” continues through Oct. 9, Wed.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m. and Sat. & Sun. at 2 p.m.at NC Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane in Asheville. Call (828) 239-0263 or visit www.ncstage.org
Next up for Immediate Theatre Project is the world-premiere of “Live From WVL Radio Theatre: The Headless Hessian of Sleepy Hollow” on Oct. 12-16 at NC Stage Company.