by John Stoltenberg
Sometimes an extraordinary piece of theater plays like a synecdoche on steroids. It serves as a small part that represents a vast whole with astounding force. A window that lets us see something more calamitous than what’s there in particular before our eyes. A microcosm that exposes a horrific macrocosm. The solo play Grounded does just that. In its indelible portrayal of a woman in the U.S. Air Force who must give up fighter-pilot duty and become a military drone operator, Grounded gives an unforgettable glimpse into the moral depravity and devastation of high-tech killing.
The production currently at Studio is an import from the UK’s Gate Theatre (which qualifies it by a bit of a stretch as finale to the New British Invasion Festival). But the jarringly poetic script, which has been produced a crazy number of times, is by an American playwright, George Brant. And make no mistake: This play’s clear-eyed lens on modern warfare keeps the ethos of U.S. militarism squarely in its sights.
The Pilot (played like blue blazes by Lucy Ellinson) is in love with flying. She’s gung-ho as can be. Then she meets a nice guy, falls in another kind of love, and gets pregnant. She is reassigned to what she derisively calls the chair force, where she is retrained to manipulate by remote control a device that can fly and spy and destroy. At first she likes the work okay. She can come home after her mind-numbing twelve-hour shifts to her little girl and loving husband. And she does her job well…until she can’t anymore. Because the experience destroys her. Crushes her. Shatters her moral sensorium. Unwittingly and involuntarily she’s conscripted into the legion of PTSD sufferers that the United States’ post-9/11 wars have generated like factories manufacturing mangled toy soldiers.
Widely reported in the news recently was the story that the U.S. Department of Defense has begun funding research to develop moral robots—implements of warfare programmed to be able to make ethical choices about, for instance, whom to kill. (That sounds like a satire from the Onion but it’s not.) I imagined the day such new technology will dawn as I watched the Pilot in Grounded watch the gray screen on which she could see what the drone she was controlling was watching. Scoping out targets, pushing buttons to blow them up, she is obligated to commit acts that become incrementally excruciating for her. Eventually she loses it when she must decide to annihilate a man being clung to by his daughter. And I wondered: Would a moral robot in her role have prevented the moral injury to her soul? Is PTSD the new collateral damage that the DOD must now ameliorate by creating killing machines that never crack up from guilt and shame?
Grounded is by no means agit-prop; it’s probably the most engrossing hour one can spend in the theater these days in DC. Director Christopher Haydon has staged an emotional epic within the confines of an eloquent gray cube designed by Oliver Townsend. Light effects by Mark Howland and sound design by Tom Gibbons rock and shock us, then suddenly zero in on the Pilot’s ordeal. As a finely wrought dramatic work, Grounded is stunning in every detail.
Only on reflection do the show’s aftershocks make one realize one has just witnessed through the art of theater an unimagined new horror in the theater of war.