By Terrance Afer-Anderson
Arts & Culture Columnist
New Journal and Guide
To be “grounded” can have many meetings. To a teen, it can mean a form of discipline that means confined to the house, all social activities banned. When viewed by his or her peers, a “grounded” adult might be someone considered having a firm grasp, understanding and appreciation of the challenges and opportunities available in life. But to a pilot, mere utterance of the word is sheer horror, a sentence of being bound to the Earth, no longer able to soar through and romance “the blue,” the sky.
And if you are a fighter pilot, it smacks of a death knell. This is what happens to the character in George Brant’s immensely demanding one-woman drama “Grounded,” currently in production at the Virginia Stage Company’s Wells Theater.
It would appear that Brant must have more than a passing acquaintance with aviation. His grasp of the language of “fly boys,” and “fly girls,” suggests a knowledge, a feel, for aeronautics only acquired beyond mere tertiary research.
I have myself gone stunt flying, to include barrel rolls, flying inverted, figure eights, stalling, diving, the whole nine yards. It is quite an unparalleled, exhilarating rush to be an aviation daredevil. When mastering aerobatics means survival, it must be an adrenalin surge beyond compare.
Yet, Brant captures it well. But as for where the playwright acquired such sensitivity, his adept skill of having the pilot’s words waft like contrails hovering over an enrapt audience, you might never know. His bio was a conspicuously absent from the playbill. Pity. He is a talented writer. Perhaps, George Brant is a pseudonym, or worse, maybe he had been grounded.
“Grounded” is indeed a well-crafted script. Brant has created a powerful vehicle for a daredevil actress.
It does in fact take a daring, seasoned thespian to accept the challenge of 85 minutes of solo emotional stunt flying, with no intermission, being fiercely buffeted by the unforgiving winds of the character’s strident transitions. Only identified as “The Pilot,” the aviator’s spirit soars, rolls over, is turned upside-down, dives, and crashes. It is quite a demanding assignment and statuesque actress Kate MacCluggage was given the mission.
It is no easy feat for an actor to keep several hundred theater patrons consistently engaged, with no break for either them or yourself. To do so in a solo performance, having no benefit of other actors, characters, with whom you can emotionally spar, react, and manufacture the very essence of stage drama, conflict, is daunting. MacCluggage soars to the stratosphere.
The Pilot’s story is one of someone who is at the height of her profession and, as a female fighter pilot, is a rare breed. She relishes every moment of it, reveling in unabashed machismo, hanging out with the guys, and the rush of engaging and eradicating the enemy. Yet, she remains exquisitely a woman and intensely so, given to raging passions and hormones, and ultimately finding quite a legendary love, a man who never fails to disarm her with the simple beauty of his truth.
Then, a surprise. Pregnancy. She trades her cockpit seat in a multi-million dollar jet aircraft for labor and stirrups. It is quite an adjustment, but she navigates through it, finding her new husband quite the domestic co-pilot. Yet, the urge to fly again is irrepressible and he encourages her to do so.
But things have changed during her short departure from the U.S. Air Force. The celebrated F-16 fighter jets have become passé’ and, in many instances, have been replaced by high-tech, $11 million drones, her new aircraft. She has gone from flying sorties over the Iraqi desert to flying drones, several thousand miles away, in a windowless bunker in the Nevada desert, from the air force to the “chair force.”
This is an epic change for The Pilot and, eventually, she emotionally crashes and burns.
Director Laley Lippard made some interesting choices. I would have loved to have seen MacCluggage further embellish characters with whom she could only make some momentary allusion. But to chiefly confine her down center in Terry S. Flint’s looming, imposing set was all the visual affirmation needed for someone emotionally bound, grounded.
Special mention is demanded here of Flint’s scenic design. It was at once stark and in your face. The barren, towering grey walls appropriately suggested the entombment of a spirit desperate to be free, yet found herself immersed in as much an internal as international war.