With her exceptionally adroit interpretation of a military pilot wobbling on the edge of sanity, Laura Norman is reason enough to see the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s daunting production of “Grounded.”
Of course, she’s also the only one in this 90-minute show. But she’s so compelling that at points, you expect her husband, doctor, supervisor or seat-warmer to stride on stage.
As the story begins, she is an active U.S. Air Force pilot, flying the F-16 long-range bomber, a plane she describes as lovingly as if it were her paramour:
“It’s the speed,” she says.
“It’s the G-Force pressing you back as you tear the sky. It’s the ride. My Tiger. My gal who cradles me, lifts me up. It’s more. It’s the respect. It’s the danger. It’s… It’s more… It’s… you are the blue. You are alone in the vastness and you are the blue. I’m in the blue for a reason. I have missiles to launch. I have Sidewinders. I have Mavericks.”
And the cocky Pilot is confident in the truth of her missions in Iraq, reducing Middle Eastern buildings to particles — she assumes, anyway, since she’s long gone by the time the bombs hit the earth. Remember that.
Then, thanks to a long weekend fling on leave, she finds herself pregnant and grounded. “The Chair Force,” she bitterly calls her new assignment. Married and a new mother, the Pilot endures the Chair Force for three years and then tells her commander that she’s ready to fly again.
Great, says her commander. But drones are replacing F-16s. He wants her to pilot a drone — fly it remotely in Iraq from her base near Las Vegas, a 12-hour shift that allows her to see her husband and daughter every day.
“We sit in a row at desks, like we’re in a typing class,” Pilot says grimly. “Like we’re learning how to make a spreadsheet. We learn to fly instead. We learn to fly with our (butts) firmly on the ground.”
Here is the crux. Are you still a pilot if you’re never airborne? If all you see for 12 hours is a murky screen interrupted by — is that a dot? Zoom in! It’s a military-age male! Await confirmation to pronounce them guilty. Then: Boom!
And back to the gray again. When her seat-warmer — the pilot on the replacement shift — shows up, she wants to celebrate, have a beer with her mates. But everyone’s on different shifts. So she drives home, alone, through a gray desert a lot like the one she just watched for 12 hours.
Then, 12 hours later, she’s back again in the chair, eyes on the screen, watching for the guilty.
Imagine this for a moment. If you never served in the military, think of how those folks bond. It’s not only on the battle lines (or above them); it’s decompressing with beers (if they’re lucky) and stories that restore their center of gravity and humanity.
Denied that R&R, what happens to a human mind? That’s the real question posed in “Grounded,” and it’s genuinely terrifying. In Norman’s interpretation, the Pilot plummets into something like madness. Then even that qualifier disappears, and we aren’t sure if she’ll pull herself out of this tailspin.
“Grounded” was directed by Josh Hartwell. The effective, minimalist set was designed by Andrew Metzroth.