Theater Review: ‘Grounded’

When the wide open sky turns gray
May 6, 2015 Updated: May 7, 2015

NEW YORK—”Grounded,” by George Brant and starring Anne Hathaway in a superlative performance, looks at the changing face of war and how those changes affect those who fight it. This powerful drama about technology versus the human factor is now at The Public Theater.

Hathaway plays a nameless fighter pilot who loves being in “the blue.” To her, there’s nothing like flying into combat armed with a huge payload of missiles and bombs, letting them loose on her assigned target and then speeding away. The feeling she feels is akin to an avenging god—it’s an illusion to be sure, but a powerful one.

Pilot (Anne Hathaway) begins her journey flying missions. (Joan Marcus)
Pilot (Anne Hathaway) begins her journey flying missions. (Joan Marcus)

When on leave, she hangs out in a bar with her fellow pilots, shooting pool, getting drunk, and occasionally hooking up with an attractive male for a quick encounter.

On her last time back to the States, she met up with a fellow named Eric, to whom to her great surprise, she became extremely attracted. When she finds herself pregnant, she is relegated to desk duty. Realizing she’s in love with Eric and he with her, they marry. After giving birth to a girl, she settles into a life in the Air Force Reserves.

The play looks at how war has changed, particularly over the last generation, in regard to technical advancements.
Three years later, when her need for the blue is too strong to ignore, she reapplies for active duty.

However, instead of climbing into a fighter plane, she’s assigned to piloting a drone by remote control 12 hours a day, six days a week as part of “the chair force.” Instead of being sent half a world away, she’s assigned to an air force base an hour’s drive from Las Vegas. With her family moving to the area with her, she’ll now be able to see her husband every day and kiss her daughter each night.

Pilot (Anne Hathaway) enters a gray, claustrophobic world. (Joan Marcus)
Pilot (Anne Hathaway) enters a gray, claustrophobic world. (Joan Marcus)

“Grounded” does not take sides on the right and wrong of armed combat or the use of drones. Rather the play looks at how war has changed, particularly over the last generation, in regard to technical advancements. While there’s no denying flying a drone by computer is physically safer for the pilot than flying a jet into a combat zone, psychologically the effects are another matter.

Initially she is repelled by the idea of staring at a gray computer screen for 12 hours a day, as well as having to deal with the constant chorus of voices coming from those working with her on her missions.

As time goes on, Hathaway’s character finds she actually begins to enjoy working in what she calls “the gray.” She soon gets back the old white knuckle feeling of being on the hunt and looking to smite the guilty. She feels even more the all-seeing god—a sort of perennial “eye in the sky.”

Yet ironically, this time things become a lot more personal. For instead of simply letting loose her payload and speeding away, she must now linger around the sight of her target and see the direct effects of her actions, including flames, smoke, debris, and body parts.

Anne Hathaway stars in a drama about the cost of modern warfare. (Joan Marcus)
Anne Hathaway stars in a drama about the cost of modern warfare. (Joan Marcus)

The sight of these pulls her far closer to the conflict than before.

Also evident is the impersonality that comes with her new position and the fact she no longer has any kind of safety valve. Here, with everybody on different shifts, they can’t simply all go off and celebrate together, as was the case when squadrons of pilots came in after missions.

Unable to compartmentalize her life results in her bringing the pressure of her job home, which puts a strain on her marriage.

She’s also unable to shake the feeling that someone is watching her. Not only in regard to the drones she knows are always present, but also from surveillance cameras at places like a mall where she takes her daughter.

She must now linger around the sight of her target and see the direct effects of her actions, including flames, smoke, debris, and body parts.
We are reminded that privacy is rapidly becoming more and more limited in today’s world. Even her drive to and from work across a stretch of the Nevada desert, which used to be quiet and relaxing, is now filled with desperation.

Hathaway does an outstanding job in presenting a woman who goes from knowing exactly who she is to someone unable to leave the gray behind at the end of the day.

While Brant and Hathaway make “Grounded” an intensely personal tale, there’s no denying that Pilot’s situation of no longer feeling emotionally detached from her job can certainly apply to others in combat situations around the world.

Credit must go to Julie Taymor’s direction and the various technical elements of the story, which nicely juxtapose the feelings of the wide open spaces of an endless desert highway with the claustrophobia that comes with being in a computer-controlled room coupled with the monotonous immensity of the task.

Tightly written and directed and brilliantly performed, “Grounded” goes from being a tale of mental and physical adjustment to one of literal survival.

‘Grounded’
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St.
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or PublicTheater.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: May 24 

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.