“The MQ-9 Reaper,” says the United States Air Force’s online spec sheet, “is an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft that is employed primarily as an intelligence-collection asset and secondarily against dynamic execution targets.” In short, it’s a military drone—a plane with the ability not only to spy on enemy targets from a great and lofty distance but also to obliterate them at the touch of a button, with the Hellfire missiles it carries under its wings. Its lack of cockpit glass making it look, ironically, like one of those cave-dwelling fish that never develop eyes, the Reaper (just consider that name!) has become the stuff of conspiracy theories, constitutional disputes, ethical conundrums, and profound national ambivalence. It certainly drives the sole character in George Brant‘s Grounded to distraction.
Not that she has any problem with the idea of raining down death on an adversary. Known to us only as the Pilot, she’s a purebred warrior from Wyoming who fiercely, even joyfully accepts the soldier’s ours-is-not-to-reason-why ethos. The nation’s foes are her foes. More, she’s kind of righteous about it. To her, people like the Taliban are “the guilty,” and she’s an angry god (not an agent of God, not the Angel of Death, you’ll note, but a god in her own right) anxious to exact retribution.
So no, killing isn’t a problem. It’s the latest technique for doing it that has her tied up in knots. As she explains at the top of this 85-minute monologue—currently offered by American Blues Theater in what might be called an extraordinary rendition, starring Gwendolyn Whiteside—the Pilot was trained on F-16 fighters and tempered in the second Iraq war; flying for her is literally and spiritually the nearest thing to heaven. “You are the blue” of the sky, she tells us, trying to put words to an experience that’s patently beyond them. She nicknamed her plane “Tiger.”
But then she fell in love with Eric, the one guy she’d met who wasn’t intimidated by her top-gun swagger. It turned him on, in fact: he asked her to wear her flight suit during sex. They got married, she got pregnant, and it was so long Tiger, hello baby daughter Samantha.
At least for a while. The Pilot lets us know that she thought her grounding would be temporary. But by the time she’s ready to resume her duties, the F-16 is a thing of the past. The air war in Afghanistan is being prosecuted by drones like the Reaper, whose movements are controlled by officers watching computer monitors and operating joysticks back in the United States. Rather than head back into the blue, our Pilot is assigned to a drone base located in the Mojave Desert, a couple hours outside of Las Vegas. She understands that the job is a good practical solution for her and her family, since she can, as she says, kiss Samantha good-bye in the morning, go to war, and get back to her snug Vegas home in time for dinner. But the arrangement gets to her all the same.
At first her objections seem as much about aesthetics as anything. Work in what she contemptuously calls the “chair force” consists of spending 12-hour shifts sitting in a windowless, overly air-conditioned trailer, trying not to fall asleep as you stare at high-def, black-and-white camera images of mostly nothing. Even her big assignment is mind-numbing, inasmuch as it involves tracking a possible jihadi bigwig who never emerges from his chauffeured car for fear of being ID’d and therefore blasted from above. And if the bigwig were to show his face, she’d have to send that information up the chain of command for permission to push the button on him. The Pilot longs for the air, for the freedom and immediacy of running her own ship, for the company of other warriors in a genuine war zone.
But as the play progresses, her issues become more profound. Or rather, they begin to disclose the profundity they always contained. Horrors turn up in the midst of the nothing on her screen. The schizoid distinction between home and war begins to tell on her. Worse, it becomes harder and harder to sustain.
Playwright Brant spent years in Chicago, turning out pieces that critics seemed to want to like more than they actually did. Reader contributor Jack Helbig, in particular, wrote a whole series of reviews basically saying “Wait till next time.” Well, Grounded is Brant’s next time, highly honored and widely staged since it won the 2012 Smith Prize from the National New Play Network. The Pilot’s speeches can become repetitive as she goes over and over her situation, and it seems strange that she never outright confronts the contradictions in her nostalgia for Tiger—as if an F-16 weren’t itself a sophisticated piece of hardware that allows for long-range killing. There’s more than a bit of unacknowledged I-love-the-smell-of-napalm-in-the-morning fatuousness in her attitude. Still, the narrative builds extremely well and provides plenty of choice acting opportunities, and Brant is lucky enough to have Whiteside and director Lisa Portes around to fill in the holes. Whiteside’s Pilot reminds me of hot-shot pilots who gather at the desert bar in The Right Stuff: amiably cocky, charmingly aggressive, reckless as all hell. It takes a while before you notice that she’s started twanging the elastic ponytail holder she keeps on her wrist, and by then you’ve gone too far with her to turn back.