In the early 21st century, rapidly advancing technologies have enhanced lives and improved the world, though some might argue that such advances detract from our humanity. Such a quandary is showcased in Grounded, onstage at NC Stage. The theater company opens its 15th season with a collaboration with Immediate Theatre Project. The play runs through Sunday, Oct. 9.
In Grounded, we meet a self-assured female jet fighter pilot played by Blythe Coons. She is skilled, dispensing death to the enemy from high in the sky. A touch of God complex is mixed with the adrenaline-junky lifestyle. Then a wrinkle occurs. She gets pregnant from a one night stand with a smooth-talking man who breaks through the ranks of the sky jockeys at a bar and sweeps her off her feet. From there, her whole world changes. Reassigned to become a drone pilot from a remote location in Nevada, the lead character is pushed out of the Air Force and into the “chair force,” being told that this was the way of the future. She is locked away with a small team of tech geeks. There, she stares at a computer screen for 12 hours a day inside an air-conditioned trailer on a military base with rows of identical trailers, filled with others who are similarly engaged.
Coons spends a tightly wound 90 minutes on stage alone, only referencing the others in her life. Her journey is an emotional one as she adjusts to a new way of life, far removed from actual warfare. The new technology and all its impersonal touches actually bring her closer to the war than ever before. Now, with cameras zooming in close, she sees the faces of those she stalks and helps to kill. The impersonal technology becomes intensely personal, as the rigors of this new norm in warfare begin to take their toll. Coons goes from cocky pilot to doting mother to emotional wreck with smooth precision.
The sparse-yet-effective stage design is by Willie Repoly and Deus Ex Machina Corp. The stage consists of a single pilot’s chair. It’s wedged between the stage floor and an angled screen that projects cloudy blue skies and coldly impersonal aerial footage as seen from the belly of a massive drone. This is all enhanced by a rumbling sound design by Toad Weakley and fast-moving lighting by CJ Barnwell. It is an intimate production, yet it’s filled with cutting-edge technical aspects, which perfectly reflect the tone of the text.
Director Charlie Flynn-McIver shows restraint, letting the simplicity of staging, playwright George Brant’s words and Coons’ wrenching performance carry the audience. The play moves from atmospheric highs to emotional tail spins that give a feeling in the pit of your stomach, as if you were actually there with the pilot for the entire harrowing journey.
WHAT: Grounded by George Brant
WHERE: N.C. Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane, ncstage.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Oct. 9. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. $16-$40