Inside a trailer on an Air Force base about an hour outside of Las Vegas sits The Pilot (Laura Norman), surveying “enemy territory” on her computer screen. The pictures are provided via sensors, including a thermal camera, carried onboard a General Atomics MQ9 Reaper—otherwise known as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), a remotely piloted vehicle (RMV), or, more commonly, a drone—flying half-way round the world above the deserts of Arabia. The drone is loaded with missles—Sidewinders, Hellfires, and Stingers—that activate 1.2 seconds after The Pilot presses the button, wiping out whomever and whatever is in her cross-hairs.
As The Pilot, Norman drills through playwright George Brant’s stacatto phrasing with laser intensity. She tells us that she never wants to take her uniform off, except for an athletic romp in the sack with her husband. (Norman is so convincing with her declaration that we’re surprised to see her in civilian attire after the production.) For rocket jockeys like The Pilot (she flew F-16s before she got pregnant and was reassigned), there’s something about being up in the blue that makes earthly life pale by comparison.
But moving from the Air Force to the Chair Force changes the playing field: Dropping bombs on people and property from F-16s is impersonal; firing missles at people and vehicles from a drone is personal.
The cameras are that good you can tell
You can tell how old if they’re women men children
You can’t see faces
But you don’t need to your mind fills them in
Therein lies the rub. The Pilot begins to question the parameters of her deployment. She drops off her little girl at nursery school, drives an hour across the desert, blows away some people every few days, returns from her shift to have dinner with her husband, and is supposed to act as if she had just spent a normal day at the office, rather than as an ethereal sniper in a war zone.
Things begin to change inside The Pilot’s head. Unlike Lady Macbeth (who, arguably had a miscarriage just prior to the timeline of the Scottish play), The Pilot has a child and cannot “unsex” herself. Early on, she talks a good game about taking out “terrorists,” gloating in her eye-in-the-sky God-like powers; but, before long, the targets begin to have faces.
Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a–goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a–fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a–gonna fall
—Bob Dylan, A Hard Rain’s A–Gonna Fall, 1963
As The Pilot’s heart and mind begin to play tricks on her, Brant’s writing and Norman’s sublimely layered performance leave us no choice but to examine how technology is leveraged not only to commit crimes against “foreign terrorists,” but against “domestic terrorists” as well. Who are these terrorists? Us; because, to the small minority of persons that own the planetary currencies, corporations, and governments, any resistance to their agenda is a threat.
Back in the late ’60’s, protestors against the war in Vietnam made a point of “bringing the war back home,” to raise consciousness about the atrocities “our country” was committing. With Grounded, Brant, Norman, and director Josh Hartwell have brought “the endless war on terror” back home.
Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s regional presentation of Grounded runs through September 28th. For tickets: 303-321-5925 or http://www.betc.org/grounded.