A solid reason why there haven't been more plays written about fighter pilots is the earthbound nature of theater. How could you adequately mimic the speed of high-flying jets for any length of time, or convey the adrenaline rush of a cat-and-mouse chase thousands of feet in the air? George Brandt found a way: simply put your pilot in a chair.
His play Grounded follows a cocky female pilot as she's plucked from "the blue" and stuck in an air-conditioned trailer in the Las Vegas desert, controlling drones halfway around the world with a joystick and monitor. As performed by Jenny Ledel at Second Thought Theatre, it's also a surprisingly taut and tense one-woman show.
Drone warfare is the future of fighting, Brandt's unnamed pilot learns, and at first she's mad as hell about the reassignment. She was an ace in the air, much more at home in her beloved blue than down on leave in Wyoming, where she kills time playing pool and knocking back beers with the boys. It's there that she meets a man who's not intimidated by her line of work — he's turned on by it, even — and suddenly leave becomes a little more fun.
That's when the (metaphorical) bomb drops for our pilot: she's pregnant. After one final flight on her trusty jet, Tiger, she dejectedly informs her superior officer of her delicate condition and is planted behind a desk. But soon her baby arrives and the man takes on the title of husband, and the pilot is content for a while.
She's soon itching to get back up in the air though, to feel the freedom of flight again. But instead of flying in the Middle East, she's assigned to what's derisively called the "chair force," essentially playing a live-action video game for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Except with this video game, you press a button and one second later a bomb drops halfway around the world (Brian McDonald's set and sound design are transportive, while Aaron Johansen's lighting brings a heart-pounding urgency).
Under the direction of STT artistic director Alex Organ, Ledel is mesmerizing. With swagger and a masculine edge, she transitions from Top Gun's Maverick into a fully formed person. She's a new mother who's pleased that she'll get to watch her daughter grow up and kiss her husband each night but who also misses the danger and excitement of deployment and live-action combat. To leave the flight suit on when she returns home, or not? It's a struggle that makes sense to anyone who's ever become a little too immersed in his or her job.
Quickly we all come to understand that even though this war might seem faraway, the effects are very real. Day after day the pilot struggles to come down off her combat high and readjust to the civilian world, but adrenaline and paranoia keep creeping in. On a day trip to the mall with her daughter, she's fixated on the "eye in the sky" security cameras in each store. They're chillingly similar to the all-seeing power of her deadly drone, and suddenly a dressing room feels like a war zone.
Brandt cleverly lulls us into the monotony of the pilot's routine, traveling back and forth across the desert from staid civilian day-to-day to life-or-death choices in front of the monitor. Ledel also pulls us along as she's discovers her newfound power, especially when she's tasked with locating and eliminating the war's No. 2 enemy. The intimacy that grows between Ledel's pilot and the audience makes the shocker of an ending even more powerful. It haunts long after we've been hurled back down to earth.
Second Thought Theatre's Grounded runs at Bryant Hall through February 4.