Grounded by Frank Theatre, performing at the Playwrights Center

Shá Cage in Grounded. Photo by Tony Nelson.

Shá Cage in Grounded. Photo by Tony Nelson.

“You are the blue,” the Pilot in Grounded (Frank Theatre performing at the Playwrights Center, through Nov 23) intones and we really feel it. Shooting and swooping and soaring through the sky, the freedom, the power of it. To be a mile high, turning and twisting. The beauty of the weapons (to cadge a line from L. Cohen). The experience sets flyers apart. Makes them unique.

(Here’s your assignment: read Tom Wolfe’s delicious The Right Stuff, the best evocation ever penned of the ecstasy of flying. The book will deepen immeasurably your understanding of Grounded. I promise.)

Grounded evokes this exaltation thrillingly and writer George Brant couldn’t ask for a better actor than Shá Cage. Cage is beautiful in this one woman performance: her immaculate flight suit, her shiny boots, her ramrod straight posture, her perfect military bearing, and always a bare hint of euphoria playing at the corner of her mouth. She meets “Eric,” her husband-to-be. “We fucked,” she whispers – but still can’t hide her glee.

This rapturous sex has a consequence – unintended? Frankly, I’m not fully sure what Brant intends here. The Pilot becomes pregnant and is thus grounded. Her freedom to fly disappears. Horrible? Yes, but otoh her marriage and her baby daughter are the source of profound joy. I found myself pulled in two directions, caught between the Pilot’s deep disappointment at being grounded, and her love for her family. This confusion carried through quite a bit of the play, for me. Perhaps you’re less literal than me and it won’t bother you. And perhaps it’s just what Brant wants.

Once the Pilot is grounded, she is reassigned as a drone pilot, living in Las Vegas and piloting a drone – the Reaper; a “hunter/killer” – a world away, in Afghanistan. She hits the “joystick” (Really? I would have hoped they had developed another word for it) and a second and a half later the drone responds. She spends her day staring at a small back and white screen, fantasizing about the “guilty military age” fighters she sees on it. She raises her thumb over the firing button. And…

All right. Piloting the faraway drone is the meat-and-potatoes section of the play and I am not going to describe it in any tell-tale detail, nor will I indicate what the creepy fantasies do to Brant’s Pilot. See Grounded for yourself.

I liked Cage. Granted, there was a hoarse, croaky, whispery laryngitis-ish quality to her voice. She was enormously quiet and understated. This might have been a problem in the Dowling but in the super-intimate Waring Jones it worked, even for hard-of-hearing me. I enjoyed the leaning forward power Grounded had and, of course, Cage never lets go of the Pilot’s passion and yearning. Cage occasionally (well, perhaps more than occasionally) had to consult her script, but this quickly ceased to bother me and I would not be surprised if, by the time you see the play, she no longer does this. Marvelous work, all in all.

Director (and Frank founder/artistic director) Wendy Knox pulls an excellent performance out of Cage. As always with Knox, Grounded exhibits intelligence and play-driving focus. Her designers – Joseph Stanley (sets), Michael Kittel (lights), Kathy Kohl (costumes) and Michael Croswell (sound), do terrific work with a minimal budget. Their production is clean and focused.

Grounded isn’t perfect – a tad long, perhaps, and like many one person shows, it tends to be past tense-ish. But the story is terrific and Cage’s performance very good. Anything Frank Theatre does is worth a look.

John Olive is a Minneapolis based writer. His Tell Me A Story In The Dark will be published in March. For more info please visit his website.


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