American playwright George Brant’s Grounded is a compelling one-woman play that achieves many things, both artistically and politically. It asks imperative questions, thrills with a finely crafted narrative, and provides refreshing insights. For 80 minutes we are utterly captivated by the unnamed but passionate female US military pilot who is grounded, first by a pregnancy, and then by her participation in drone warfare. Returning to work, she finds that she has been assigned to “chairforce”, waging war from the relative comfort of a trailer in the Las Vegas desert. A woman thriving on such a fiercely male platform is already a fascinating premise, but the story delivers on Brant’s promise to pack way more into this intense monologue.
The script courts a sense of déjà vu with this human drama in a situation that feels deliberately separated from human emotion. Brant weaves a new war narrative miles apart from our traditional conceptions of the frontline. The Pilot and her one-of-the-guys patriotism is calculated to fuel a sense of liberal-Left indignation, yet the beautifully phrased monologue goes on to create an interesting collision between the love of homeland and the way boundaries between war and peace get blurred on the virtual battlefield.
A rapidly unraveling Mikkie-Dene le Roux delivers the flawed Pilot’s swagger with the commanding adventurism and candour of a modern-day Katharine Hepburn. Le Roux’s presence is compelling, and the way she plays up to the great charade of gender politics is truly captivating. Her cause is unapologetically singular and self-gratifying. However, Le Roux’s boiler-suited virago falters when the script calls for a flicker of vulnerability. The methodological way she taps into to moments of high emotion and sentimentality rings faintly hollow. Nevertheless, Le Roux’s Pilot still hones in on a nuanced and heart-wrenchingly visceral performance, as we watch her clinging desperately to the last vestiges of the ace aviatrix she once was.
Director Christopher Weare’s precision guides the show to a stratospheric level of theatrical intensity. Weare has stripped the play to a raw minimum, presenting instead a textured and well-paced production accentuated by Le Roux’s gripping performance. His blocking is impeccable and he clearly has a strong command in exploring this complex character, while shaping our leading lady’s bravery. Weare’s muted set design transforms the Baxter’s intimate Golden Arrow stage into a barren landscape surrounded by perpetual darkness. Kieran McGregor’s masterful lighting manipulation keeps things relentlessly focused. At times his lighting direction pleasingly overwhelms each scene, and highlights Le Roux’s enigmatic presence with segments of memorable silhouettes.
The charm of Brant’s snappy staccato script and Weare’s uncompromising production is the way they capture and confront the audience: we cannot escape being implicated in The Pilot’s conflicted debate about moral responsibility and ambiguous feminism. It seems that the play deliberately chooses not follow the traditional route of internalising its protagonist’s feelings of anger and injustice. And as with all of the best works of art, Grounded moves beyond the insular to touch on many topical issues, particularly our increasingly technological world and how aspects of it are removing us from what is real.
Benn van der Westhuizen
Grounded is currently running at the Baxter Theatre’s Golden Arrow Studio from 4 to 28 November 2015.