Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Frank Theatre has brought Grounded back, this time with Audrey Park as the unnamed pilot. The play toured outstate Minnesota (the first tour in Frank's 29 year history) before returning to the Twin Cities for a two-week engagement that just wrapped up. One performance remains, this weekend at the Rochester Civic Theatre. On second viewing, I found the play as searing and through provoking as before, but in the hands of a different actor, different points of tension arise, making a different, but equally profound experience. This affirms that, good as Sha Cage was in the role, Grounded is more than a platform for a tour de force. It is a well-written and compelling play, on themes of great importance in our conflict-riddled world.
Grounded starts off with the pilot telling us about her flight suit, which has become her skinshe never wants to take it off, she feels incomplete without it. She talks with giddy affection about her airplane, an F-10 Tiger, and "the blue," the sky she soars through, and which gives a feeling of peace and power simultaneously. In short order she is on leave, gets pregnant, and goes back home to the states. She cannot fly while pregnant, not with the kind of g-force generated by an F-10. The baby's father, Eric, marries her and they set up a domestic life. She loves Eric and her baby girl, but she sorely misses the blue.
Finally, she is able to return to the force, but the war is not the same. Instead of returning to her F-10 Tiger and flying over the desert, she now will wage war from a trailer in Nevada, staring at a computer monitor with her hand on the control of a drone, dubbed "The Reaper." She will do this for a twelve-hour shift, then go home to her family, seven days a week. Eric calls it a gift, home every night and not sent away for six months or more, but the daily transition between tracking warlords and playing with Sam and her collection of pink ponies is a challenge.
Then there is the drone. The Reaper is twelve thousand miles away, but has a response time of just 1.2 seconds. With the technology on board the drone, she can zero in on faces below. Now she is not dropping bombs on anonymous fuzzy figures far below, but on real people. She had always understood that those on whom she showered fire from the sky were guilty. But when she sees them as individuals ... are they all guilty? Are the children she sees guilty? Her questions and the dissonance in the fractured parts of her life lead to a crisis point.
Sha Cage as the pilot, projected anger and determination as she delivered her vengeance upon those guilty ones. Whether from her F-10 Tiger or by means of the drone, she aimed to let those people have it, because they were bad. There was something wrong, and she was commissioned to correct that wrong, proceeding with certainty. In the current production, Audrey Park brings a greater sense of joy, giggling as she describes her state of bliss up on the blue, and the sensual pleasure of her relationship with Eric. Park's pilot is not so much a warrior as a thrill-seeker, the acts of war just a means to that end. For that reason, her transition from being surrounded by the blue to being in a locked stare with the graywhich is what she calls the desert images on her monitoris all the harder.
The creative team remains the same as in 2014, with Joseph Stanley's starkly bare set, Kathy Kohl's single pilot-suit costume, Mike Kittel's atmospheric lighting, projecting different colors and cross-hatched images that bring to mind a dystopian landscape, and crisp sound by Michael Croswell. Director Wendy Knox keeps the play moving swiftly. Though only 75 minutes long, the intensity of Grounded requires a sense of momentum to keep from getting trapped in the painful feelings and thoughts it unleashes.
I have to admit, though I have admired Audrey Park's work in the past, I was concerned that without Sha Cage as the pilot, this Grounded would disappoint. The good news is that, giving it her own energy and revealing different aspects of the pilot's emotional journey, Park is no less remarkable. The even better news is that Grounded shows itself to be a sturdy play, one that deserves to be brought back and seen by larger audiences. It certainly is making its mark around the country, with frequent productions, along with news that an opera version is in the works by way of the Metropolitan Opera's new works project, and that Anne Hathaway, who starred in an Off-Broadway production of Grounded, is trying to pull together a movie version. Meanwhile, if you have not seen it, it is well worth a trip to Rochester this weekend.
As our nation continues in war in the Middle East, seemingly without end, with goals and benchmarks for success forever being redefined, the nature of how we wage war and what that does to our own fighting forces must be candidly examined. Have we redefined a new "normal" for how those who take up the uniform are to live, and feel, and think? Grounded provides a provocative and moving platform on which to have those conversations.
Grounded, a Frank Theatre production, concludes its Minnesota tour on Saturday, February 24, 2018, at the Rochester Civic Theatre, 20 Civic Center Dr., SE, Rochester MN. Tickets: $20.00. For tickets, visit www.rochestecivictheatre.org or call 507-282-8481. For information about Frank Theatre, visit www.franktheatre.org.
Playwright: George Brant; Director: Wendy Knox; Set Design: Joseph Stanley; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Light Design: Mike Kittel; Sound Design: Michael Croswell; Stage Manager: Jared Zeigler.
Cast: Audrey Park (The Pilot)
Playwright: Leah Nanako Winkler; Director: Randy Reyes; Set Design: Joseph Stanley; Costume Design: Joanne Jongsma; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Composer: Keith Hovis; Technical Director: Trevor Muller-Hegel; Stage Manager: Raul Ramos.
Cast: Sun Mee Chomet (Blythe), Kathryn Fumie (Mary), Meghan Kreidler (Charlotte), Sherwin Resurreccion (Joshua), Eric Sharp (Christopher).