“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” So said J. Robert Oppenheimer of his work on the atomic bomb, quoting the Bhagavad Gita. There’s grief and guilt in the statement, as well a daunting realization of just what he’s unleashed on the world. But as you think about it, you also catch a note of megalomaniacal power.
We hear the same power in the voice of The Pilot, protagonist of George Brant’s brain-searing, one-woman play Grounded, now receiving its regional premiere courtesy of the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company.
As the play begins, The Pilot is at the top of her game, cocky and tough, exulting in her job of carrying out air strikes on Iraqi targets and then veering off into the solitary blue freedom of the sky: “I’m long gone by the time the boom happens,” she says. On leave, she whiles away the evenings drinking and playing pool with her “boys.”
But like many a warrior before her, The Pilot is undone by love. She gets pregnant, marries, has a little girl and is grounded by the Air Force and assigned to launch drone attacks from the safety of an air-conditioned trailer in the Nevada desert. For twelve hours a day, she stares at a gray screen, periodically — after long hours of boredom — obliterating human beings judged guilty by her intelligence coordinator with a movement of her thumb. This kind of killing is different from the killing she’s used to, though; there’s a camera in the belly of her Reaper, and she can see the condemned. Not that it troubles her, at least not for a while. She lives to help the U.S. convoys on the ground; she’s deeply shaken by a mound of corpses she recognizes as “ours.” She almost croons her pleasure as she prepares for the kill: “Poor saps. You don’t learn, do you? You can’t hide from the eye in the sky, my children.” And every evening she goes home to her devoted husband and her child. You know from the play’s beginning that The Pilot will eventually fall apart — but you don’t know how this will happen.
Author Brant has written a brilliant script: terse, angry, sad and poetic — not lyrically poetic, but a deep, tough true poetry. Certain metaphors repeat. They’re not even metaphors at first, just straightforward descriptions; repetition gives them metaphoric resonance. The blue sky and the gray world The Pilot sees on her screen; the tawdry realities of Las Vegas, including a pink travesty of an Egyptian pyramid; the deserts of Afghanistan and Nevada, which sometimes meld in her mind; the white crosses she discovers a little way off the road; the drone’s merciless eye in the sky, an eye that represents the wrathful god with whom she identifies. But this god will eventually strip her of her power.
The central topic is resonant. Anyone who’s been following the news knows about the controversy surrounding the U.S. use of drones — the civilian deaths, the wedding parties bombed, the fact that the administration defines all military-aged males in a strike zone as militants. There are profound questions about the morality of waging war with firepower so distant and overwhelming: Seated in a barcalounger, The Pilot metes out death and destruction with absolutely no danger to herself. But there’s nothing polemical about Brant’s script. You can infer political points, but what you’re being told directly is the story of a singular and fascinating woman, a soldier through and through — a hero, in the parlance of the day.
An excellent script and important topic would mean nothing without a brilliant performance in the central role, and BETC was lucky enough to secure Laura Norman — one of the few local actors who can be called “great” without hyperbole. Norman lives every emotionally draining moment of the part. There’s a profound truth to everything she does, from the heavy, authoritative walk to the jocular militarisms she spouts to her final ominous and despairing words. You can see the effect of Josh Hartwell’s thoughtful direction, too, in myriad subtleties. Going through this experience can’t have been easy for either of these artists, but their creative generosity has achieved something rare in the world of theater: a work with the power to change the viewer.
Grounded, presented by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, runs through September 28 at the Avenue Theater, 417 East 17th Avenue. For ticket information call 303-321-5925 or go to boulderensembletheatre.org.