Review by Carol Rocamora
Her name isn’t listed in the program’s cast of characters. Nor is ever uttered in this riveting 75 minute monologue. But you won’t ever forget her, this conflicted young woman played by Anne Hathaway, in George Brandt’s riveting portrait of an anguished American pilot.
Grounded, a spell-binding new one-woman show, tells the story of a dedicated young airwoman who is living her dream, flying fighter planes “with the boys” in Afghanistan and Iraq. She’s ecstatic, “alone in the blue, in the vastness,” as she calls it.
But destiny has other plans for this woman warrior. She meets Eric while she’s home on leave in Wyoming, and soon finds herself pregnant. She won’t have an abortion – so her commander assigns her to a stateside desk job, flying drones from an air force base near Las Vegas. “Different desert, same war”, he assures her.
So she finds herself driving every day across the desert to a trailer, where she puts on her fighter pilot suit and sits in front of a screen, manning drones in Afghanistan. Then she comes home every night for dinner, kisses her young daughter, stares at another screen (TV) with Eric, and goes to bed. “It’s driving to war, like punching a clock.”
At first, she adjusts. “It becomes your world – like the TV or the computer.
I press a button and boom – no more jeep.” But the armor begins to crack. On weekends, she finds herself in the mall, looking for the hidden cameras. “J. C. Penney or Afghanistan – we’re surveyed by outsourced nineteen year olds.” Her paranoia increases. She sits at work, obeying orders (“interpret, destroy”), pressing buttons on the screen, watching body parts fly. At night she won’t take off her uniform; she stops having sex with her husband. He arranges for them to see a therapist, but she continues to unravel. “Where oh where will we fly today, my pretty pony and me”, she sings her daughter’s song, driving across the desert to sit in a darkened trailer, gazing at another desert half way around the world.
Though slight and gamin-like, Hathaway (star of stage and screen) delivers a powerful performance as an ordinary woman in an extraordinary situation. Her director Julie Taymor (of The Lion King fame), creator of brilliant theatrical images, places Hathaway alone on an empty stage, whose floor is covered with the sands of Las Vegas. The upstage wall is a huge mirror, reflecting the desert scape of the Middle East. (Vivid projections by Peter Nigrini flash on both) Navigating through these two colliding worlds, we watch Hathaway losing her way, without a moral compass.
In the monologue’s climatic moments, she is ordered to chase a high-priority target across the barren Afghanistan landscape and destroy him. “I will be the one to erase you. I am God!” she delivers her battle cry. Then she sees that he is holding a young daughter in his arms, like her own.
Playwright George Brant sets his lonely pilot, lost in time and space, into a larger historical context. Classical, mythical, and religious references abound. “The Odyssey would be a different book if Odysseus came home from work every day,” remarks Hathaway at one point. At another, she names her daughter’s toy pony “Pegasus” (the Greek winged stallion who flew too close to the sun). At yet another, she issues a warning, invoking the Old Testament: “There’s a camera somewhere. Know that you are not safe, though you mark your door with blood.”
Taymor and her brilliant design team (sets by Riccardo Hernandez, lights by Chirstopher Akerlind, original music by Elliot Goldenthal) have collaborated to create unforgettable images and sounds that bring Hathaway’s anguished journey to vivid life. At the play’s opening and close she stands center stage, while a stream of sand pours down on her from the theatre’s towering heights. The sands of war and time will rain down and cover us all, the play is saying. As Brant’s pilot prophesizes: “None of the guilty will be spared.”
Grounded, by George Brant, directed by Julie Taymor, at the Public Theatre, 445 Lafayette, New York.
Photo: Joan Marcus