Back in pre-history, when one caveman got pissed at another dude down the path, he could fashion a big club out of a tree branch and wave it at his enemy. Until, that is, the other guy found a bigger club carved from a tree trunk. As the human race has discovered, repeatedly, it's hard to stay ahead in the deadly gamesmanship of war.
And that doesn't even touch on the personal toll exerted by such activities, which is examined in Grounded by Cleveland playwright George Brant, now at Dobama Theatre. This fascinating play, which first appeared in town at the Cleveland Play House New Ground Festival in 2014, has had a storied production history in the years since: There have been more than 100 domestic and international productions, plus an off- Broadway staging featuring film star Anne Hathaway in the starring role, directed by Julie (The Lion King) Taymor.
In this latest version, directed by Alice Reagan, the focus is on Brant's incisive words, as there are precious few visual distractions on stage. The sole actor, Anjanette Hall as The Pilot (we never learn her real name), is placed by production designer Tesia Dugan Benson on an "X marks the spot" space delineated by intersecting jet runways. And it is there that she describes her evolution from kickass fighter pilot, in an actual plane, to flying drones over enemy territory from the safety of a Barcalounger in the Nevada desert.
Yes, this is drone warfare, the video game sport weaponized to a terrifying degree by the American military. Why risk death or capture by flying over people you hate, when you can relax in some padded Naugahyde® and blast your human targets into tapioca from 8,000 miles away with the push of a button?
The Pilot rejects the idea at first. But since she's just found out she's pregnant by her boyfriend Eric, she decides to climb out of the cockpit and join the "chair force." Over time, she begins to see that the drone is a "gift," as many people tell her, since it allows her to come home from the war every evening where she can hug Eric and infant daughter Samantha. However, as she wryly notes, "What if Odysseus had returned for his supper each night, and brought the war to his family home?" As another Homer might say, "D'oh!"
The insights generated by Brant's words are frequent and intense. When The Pilot first sees a real drone, aptly named The Reaper, she notes how its nose cone looks like a sightless bird. Until, that is, she discovers that the underbelly of this creature is bristling with eyeballs: "The Gorgon Stare: Infrared, thermal, radar, laser — a thousand eyes staring at the ground." By writing The Pilot's monologue in crisp, poem-length phrases, Brant assembles a word mosaic with enough spaces between shiny tiles of her thoughts to allow the audience to provide their own connecting grout.
This often works splendidly well, particularly in the first half of the piece when we are sharing The Pilot's disappointments and new God-like powers from her unassailable perch in a windowless trailer on the air force base. However, the narrative goes a bit slack in the second half as the newness wears off, both for The Pilot and for us, and even her relentless tracking of one particular target doesn't amp up the interest.
As The Pilot, Hall brings a believable macho toughness to this female jet jockey who's happy to get into a dick-measuring contest with anyone. And she makes her relationship with Eric and her little girl Sam feel tender and true without becoming treacly. But over the course of the play, Hall's refined ability to craft a credible human person almost works against the biological drone that her character is becoming.
By circling over that faraway desert hour after hour, watching homes and bodies explode from her unseen attacks launched from a bright and sunny sky, The Pilot is slowly extruded into a new form. She is an all-powerful death dealer, a Zeus in a prefab trailer. And as we see how that process impacts The Pilot and her family, we begin to sense what it is doing to all of us.
For, of course, the play is about much more than just one person and her family. It is about us, sitting in front of our screens as our volunteer warriors — chair-bound and otherwise — fight in our name without us having to even give it a passing thought. We are safe, for now.
But just like that caveman with the first club, how long will it be before our weapons are matched, as they always are? How long before our safety is decimated by unfriendly drones operated by hostile forces, from outside our country or from within? Even now, there are nerds buying drones online, no doubt figuring out how to deploy them for maximum comedic and/or tragic effect.
These are the kind of thoughts a well-crafted play should inspire, and Brant's Grounded does exactly that. Even with an ending that is a bit too emotionally pat, it leaves you with a gut wallop that you'll feel for a while.