Written by George Brant
Directed by Lee Mikasa Gardener
Set, Steven Royal. Lights, Wen-Ling Liao. Sound, Dewey C. Dellay. Production design, Kathryn Lieber.
A Nora Theatre Company Production
Central Square Theater
450 Mass Ave, Cambridge, MA 02139
Date closing: March 22
Ticket price: $15-$56
“Nooooooo!” I silently screamed to myself in the last minutes of the play “Grounded.” That’s when I realized how deeply Celeste Oliva had dragged me into her role as a Pilot unraveling in the performance of her duty.
Ninety minutes, one actor, one prop, one helluva an explosion of drama. That pretty much describes the play "Grounded" at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge.
That’s precisely the reaction that playwright George Brant wanted to create in this modern day morality play.
By the time you begin to breathe normally when the stage lights fade to black, you think differently about the use of drones (umanned aerial vehicles/UAVs) to conduct warfare. No boots on the ground? Great, it’s not as dirty or bloody so we don’t suffer casualties.
As soon as Celeste Oliva walks on to theater-in-the-round stage, she fills the space with a charge of Alpha electricity. Wearing an olive green flight suit and dark aviator glasses, she exudes warrior mentality. Competitive, confident, cocky, she’s as much a bad-ass as any of the flyboys.
Our hot-shot pilot has just been grounded. The pilot formerly luxuriated in the endless blue sky over her cockpit, a mighty warrior, free and fierce, strapped into a million dollar war machine flying at Mach2, dispensing righteousness upon enemy convoys, housing, and fortifications. By the time her missiles have rained hell on the targets, she can see the dust rising from miles away as her jet screams for home. And she screams with satisfaction from the gleaming aluminum tube.
Now? Grounded because she got pregnant. No more a member of the high and mighty fraternity of top dogs. Pissed off. And ordered to report to duty in the Nevada desert an hour’s drive from her home to take 8 hour shifts piloting a drone circling like a lethal predator five miles over war torn Iraq. All she has to do is focus, concentrate, concentrate, concentrate to locate terrorists, pull the trigger and then go home and have dinner with her husband and daughter.
Drones have the astonishing optical ability to zero in close enough to a suspected enemy to determine whether he shaved or not that morning. Our pilot gets good at finding and firing. She exults at watching earth, truck carriages and wheels, rocks and rubble tossed into the air. She is so far removed from the battlefield. So safe from being wounded or killed.
Physical distance makes the killing process easier. Cultural differences and moral differences psychologically insulate the warrior. Our enemies have weird practices and customs and religions. Killing by pulling the trigger on a remote controlled drone helps keep the enemy as just that, an abstract concept rather than a warm blooded human being with a family, friends, and community.
One day turns into the next. Pack lunches for her daughter’s preschool day, kiss her husband goodbye, head for the office, tap the pilot she’s replacing on the shoulder and focus on the gray and white screen in front of her.
“What’s that?” she wonders after gleefully inspecting the debris flying from a missile strike one day. Body parts.
Grounded really takes off after that revelation. We watch our Pilot’s descent into psychological paralysis. Can operating one of those unmanned killing machines have the same effect on a pilot as thrusting a bayonet into a man’s stomach?
Celeste Oliva’s monologue builds slowly, reaches emotional altitude and delivers a devastating payload. Her performance on the small circle of lighted stage packs as much power as a sidewinder missile in its chamber on a drone’s wing.
Photo A.R. Sinclair Photography
Grounded was named a Top 10 Play of 2013 by The Guardian and the London Evening Standard, Grounded was nominated for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award.