As the audience files into the theater before Grounded begins, the play’s lone character, the Pilot (Lucy Ellinson), stands inside a glowing, gauze-sided cube, clad in a flight suit, feet planted firmly on the floor, gazing out at the crowd. It is one of the only moments in the hourlong play that the Pilot stands still.
In George Brant’s fast-paced, gripping show, which takes place entirely inside that glowing cube (designed by Oliver Townsend), the Pilot is deployed in Afghanistan, blissfully spending her days flying fighter jets and her evenings palling around with the men from her unit. Until one night she meets a man at a bar and, impressed by his lack of intimidation at her forceful personality, she takes him home, and eventually winds up pregnant. This isn’t some tragic tale of a one-night stand, though—when she’s grounded from flying and shows up at her lover’s door, he promptly proposes, and they settle into a happy family life with their daughter. Happy, that is, until the Pilot is permanently reassigned to the “Chair Force,” relegated to piloting drones from a trailer in a Las Vegas desert.
Ellinson, who starred in the buzzed-about production of the play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is mesmerizing in her portrayal of the Pilot, whiplashing from one emotion to the next—anger, resignation, panic, false cheer—all with a gloss of bravado that’s both humorous and heartbreaking. The show avoids getting mired in the conflicts one might expect—Will she keep the baby? Will her lover reject her?—choosing instead to focus on her struggle to balance a satisfying career, a solid marriage, and a great relationship with her child and ending up with pale imitations of all three. Is it possible for her to have it all—or will she make herself insane trying?
This isn’t just, though, an exploration of the now-common “working-woman conundrum”—the play is primarily a more chilling look at the world of modern warfare and its effects on the psychology of soldiers. Ellison is bored to depression by her sedentary job but confesses to a powerful adrenaline rush when the action picks up. While she’s struck by the absurdity of her husband serving her French toast before she goes off to war, she soon begins to warm to the power she wields via remote control. There are mentions of our overreliance on technology, as when the Pilot complains of going from staring at a box all day at her job to staring at the glowing box of her television at home; and of 21st-century surveillance state paranoia, when she becomes convinced the “eye in the sky” is watching her, even in a department store dressing room. As the combination of cabin fever and paranoia begins to creep in, Ellison offers an unnerving depiction of a woman teetering on the edge of a breakdown.
Lighting by Mark Howland and often jarring musical cues (sound design by Tom Gibbons) mark the transitions from one setting to the next, but the constraints of the set lend a perpetually claustrophobic air. Interestingly, the cube, though transparent from the outside, is apparently opaque from within, turning the audience into the unseen force observing the Pilot as she observes her targets. In a time when technology allows people the freedom to soar thousands of feet above the earth and the ability to see across the world, the Pilot ends up more trapped than ever.
Grounded is at Studio Theatre through June 29. Running time is about one hour, with no intermission. Tickets ($39 to $59) are available through Studio’s website.