A Stunning Singular Strike at Olney Theatre
George Brant’s Grounded, at Olney Theatre, is a fast-paced, suspenseful, and moving one-woman show about a drone operator’s struggle to play two roles: annihilator and mother. Reassigned from fighter pilot to drone operator when she becomes pregnant, the Pilot (Megan Anderson), who drinks with the men after a mission and relishes the task of “turning minarets to sand” under threat of tracer fire, at first resents being relegated to the “chair force.”
She is no longer alone in the blue sky. She is seated, in a room, at Creech Air Force base in Nevada. Her instructions come from commanders and Judge Advocate Generals via headphones. She does twelve-hour shifts that consist of watching a black-and-white screen, checking for the gray shapes of humans or cars on the ground. Her first strike ends the monotony of her new assignment. It is not against any named terrorists or terrorist suspects; it is a “signature strike,” which means the guilt assigned to the targets is based on a demographic profile—in this case, being male and of military age. She not only watches the missile fall, but also sees the men who had been walking beside the road die. This graphic scene is something she never witnessed when actually flying. However, her targets have been declared guilty by virtue of their signature, and by the voices speaking through her headphones. Accordingly, she rejoices, “I killed me some men of military age.”
The production—a co-production of Olney Theatre and Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre—is first rate. The set is minimal: a rolling desk chair, sixteen small screens, and one very large screen. Under the skillful direction of Derek Goldman, founder of Georgetown University’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, Anderson believably converts the emptiness of that space into a control room, desert highway, bar, therapist’s office, mall, living room, and bedroom. Anderson’s performance is incredibly high energy and fully committed. Except when she is sitting in front of the screen, missile lever in hand, she is in constant motion. Anderson manages to portray very clearly the Pilot’s increasing level of stress as time passes and her work progresses.
Unlike when she was a fighter pilot stationed abroad, the Pilot now returns to her husband and daughter each night. Unable to discuss classified information with her husband, she leaves her uniform on when she has carried out a strike so that he will know she has done good. As time wears on, it becomes increasingly hard for her to take her uniform off. She begins to deteriorate psychologically, leaving offerings for her victims on her way home from work at a desert cemetery where there are “hundreds of crosses pounded into the sand.” It’s unclear whether the site of this ritual is real or a hallucination. Driving home through the desert, the Pilot sees herself as though from above, a gray form. As she watches her daughter sleep, she sees her for a moment turn gray, and stop breathing.
At the same time, because the Pilot sees herself and her child as potential drone-strike victims—call it PTSD, psychosis, or radical empathy—Brant is able to raise questions about the nature of the strikes themselves.
Although the Pilot can’t sleep and her husband begs her to see a therapist (she humors him with one visit), she tracks her targets and fulfills her duty just as avidly as ever. “The guilty are gone,” she says. “I did this. We did this. . . .I’m searching for more of the guilty, I’m hoping to do it again.” The Pilot desperately wants to be the one to end the life of the Prophet, a cleric who is a presumed terrorist. She casts herself as God, using a combination of allusions to Greek mythology and the Bible: “Olympus is a trailer in the middle of the desert”; “Don’t speak to a god of guilt. This god wants a beer”; “We will smite him down”; “You are the Prophet but I am God and you don’t speak for me.” These references seem out of place until you remember her weapons of destruction are “Hellfire” missiles. Those who dispatch the Hellfire are cast in the position of Zeus, with his lightning bolts, or God, with his vengeance. The Pilot’s single-minded ambition to kill the Prophet is turned upside down when he places his child in his arms for in this moment she only sees her own.
The script is a masterpiece. Brant builds sympathy for the Pilot, who is tough, but also funny. The Pilot recounts the moment when her boyfriend first sees her pregnant. She is “ready to see his face fall, to see ‘whatever fly-girl fantasy he’s got going,’ dispelled by the civilian whale before him.” Brant, fully sympathetic to the Pilot, examines the psychic toll of drone strikes on their operators, who suffer from PTSD at rates equal to those of fighter pilots in the field. At the same time, because the Pilot sees herself and her child as potential drone-strike victims—call it PTSD, psychosis, or radical empathy—Brant is able to raise questions about the nature of the strikes themselves. For example, what would it be like to be hunted from the sky—to have your child taken from you? Is it even possible to assess innocence and guilt from thousands of miles away, without charge or trial? If a suspect is deemed guilty, is it then okay to deliver a death sentence? Do we have the right—or an obligation—to resist? The play does not leave these questions open ended. The Pilot closes the final scene with these words: “You are not safe. One day it will be your turn, your child’s turn. And yea, though you mark each and every door with blood, none of the guilty will be spared. None.”
Grounded is one of the most powerful and relevant works of theatre I have ever seen, and Anderson’s skill is pivotal to its impact. Constructing a character that is likeable and funny while at the same time tough, aggressive, and a great lover of bombing missions and AC/DC cannot be easy. But the Pilot, as Anderson plays her, commands sympathy and respect. The multiple screens are used to great effect, filling the stage with blue sky when the Pilot is describing her combat missions, and with gray forms—“putty figures”—when she has been relegated to the drone force. The play opens to the sound of fighter jets and missiles. Discordant music and percussion heighten the suspense at pivotal moments. In the final drone strike scene, the visuals dominate, as we are absorbed more and more into the screen before us. The strike itself, 12,000 miles away, is a silent horror.
The theatre’s proximity to Fort Meade and the Washington, D.C. suburbs where many of the companies that make drones and Hellfire missiles are headquartered makes it especially relevant to this community.
Olney Theatre, under the artistic direction of Jason Loewith for the past two years, has approached the subject matter of the play carefully in promotional materials. The program features highlights of the history of women in the military. The “drone facts’’ list also provided in the program limits itself to eight points, three of which explain the nonlethal uses of drones. These are prudent decisions; they leave the play necessary room to make its powerful argument fully on its own. Information in the public domain is plentiful, in any case, on the numbers of drone strike victims which to date include at least four U.S. citizens.
Olney Theatre has a long and distinguished history. The theatre began operations in 1938, on the site of a former roller skating rink in rural Montgomery County, just north of Washington, D.C. Although Grounded has been produced at a number of theatres across the country (and is proving a popular choice for next season too), and received a production at Studio Theatre in D.C. last year, Olney—a professional, award-winning regional theatre—is an especially important place for a production of this play. The theatre’s proximity to Fort Meade and the Washington, D.C. suburbs where many of the companies that make drones and Hellfire missiles are headquartered makes it especially relevant to this community. Grounded is a transformative play. Olney Theatre’s brilliant production was met with a standing ovation on the night I attended. It was a true gift to be able to see it—a nuanced and superbly skillful condemnation of drone strikes and all of us who allow them.