George Brant’s stark drama “Grounded” follows the impressive example of generations of antiwar literature.
The 90-minute show offers affecting echoes of seminal works such as Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel, “Johnny Got His Gun,” and Tim O’Brien’s 1990 short-story collection, “The Things They Carried.” Those parallels come in an unflinching examination of the true toll of warfare; they’re clear in the timeless undertones of violence, futility and loss that undergird the entire show.
Then again, there’s something thoroughly modern in this taut, one-woman show, a grim aspect that’s tied undeniably to battlefields of the 21st century.
The tension between age-old observations about the human propensity for violence and the impact of technology on modern warfare is part of what makes “Grounded” so compelling. The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s current production, being presented at the Avenue Theatre in Denver, strikes that thematic balance expertly, thanks to a tour-de-force delivery by Laura Norman, the show’s sole star, as well as a refined and nuanced approach to staging by director Josh Hartwell.
With a minimal approach to stage design, sound and lighting, the BETC production offers an unfiltered and unflinching view into a changing world of war, a military structure that relies heavily on unmanned drones and remote strikes to carry out its most gruesome missions. The drama poses familiar and uncomfortable questions about the psychological strain of combat, but the themes come in a thoroughly modern framework.
It’s no wonder the show’s questions and conflicts feel so contemporary; Brant debuted the show in New York earlier this year, and the BETC production is one of several regional premieres slated for the troupe’s coming season. It’s a testament to the company’s commitment to tackling contemporary questions.
Those questions come in the pained story of the show’s lone character. “The Pilot” is an unnamed Air Force pilot whose gradual breakdown serves as the show’s crux and central conflict. Decked simply in a flight suit, Norman brings the character to life with a steely resolve and unflinching directness, laying out the story of a soldier who’s unable to keep up with the changes wrought by a modern world.
The character comes of combat age in the era of F-16s, the winged marvels designed to defy gravity and delve deep into “the blue,” a term that comes to represent all the majesty, mystery and power of an aerial battlefield. The protagonist revels in her battlefield. Her plane is her world; she’s at home in the cockpit. She’s resigned to the demands of being a soldier — missile strikes are part of a lifestyle rooted in camaraderie, duty and honor.
Life interferes. The pilot meets a man. She falls for him. She gets pregnant, goes on leave and returns to a different world.
She’s welcomed back as a drone pilot, an operator in what she mockingly refers to as “the chair force.” Her access to “the blue” is cut off. Her battle missions are now carried out from a console at Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert. She launches sidewinder, hellfire and maverick missiles by day, then returns to her husband and child at night.
That shift brings out inner-demons that are as old as warfare and as modern as unmanned drones. Norman paints a stirring portrait of a soldier coming unhinged. The impact of taking out enemies via a joystick and a grey screen is gradual, tortured and haunting. Her descriptions of the gruesome and bloody battlefields of an anonymous desert get to the core of Brant’s creative accomplishment with this show — they’re ancient and modern all at once.
Norman’s measured and seamless performance shines thanks to a direct approach to staging by Hartwell and the crew. Andrew Metzroth’s production design is snippets of pop songs, flashes of basic colors and basic designs flashed on a small screen at the back of an unadorned set. Norman’s only props are a chair and a coffee cup.
The unadorned aesthetic fits the stark quality of the text. Brant’s drama poignantly illustrates how the psychological and emotional toll of war persists, even as the technology of combat evolves.
If you go
3 1/2 stars
What: Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s “Grounded” runs until Sept. 28 at the Avenue Theatre, 417 E 17th Ave. in Denver.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 28
Where: Avenue Theatre, 417 E 17th Ave. in Denver
Parents’ guide: This show is not suitable for anyone younger than 17 because of language and violent and explicit themes