'Grounded': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Anne Hathaway in 'Grounded'
Star power and dazzling stagecraft trump substance

Anne Hathaway plays a fighter pilot sidelined after childbirth to become a drone operator in this timely single-character play, directed off-Broadway by Julie Taymor.

The stage directions in George Brant's intense theatrical monologue, Grounded, call for sound and lighting design to reinforce the mental landscape of the protagonist and feed a growing sense of unease throughout. Director Julie Taymor follows that cue with a densely complex visual and sonic field appropriate to this drama about the disorienting effects of long-distance combat on an American fighter pilot reassigned to drone operation. And Anne Hathaway plays against type with grit and conviction as the tough Iraq veteran steadily unraveling. So why doesn't this impressive production pack more of an emotional wallop?

That's possibly because the technical wizardry and star power expose the limitations of the play. This is a performance piece that focuses on the personal drama of one woman's psychological struggle in the dehumanizing world of joystick warfare, while reflecting only obliquely on its political and moral ramifications. As the surrounding debate grows louder in a week during which news emerged of the collateral deaths of an American and an Italian aid worker in a CIA-authorized drone strike in Pakistan, the play's scope seems suddenly narrower. The Ethan Hawke film Good Kill, which opens next month and focuses on a male pilot going through a similar adjustment process, digs deeper.

However, Grounded certainly doesn't stint on innovative stagecraft, starting with its arresting opening image. On a bare stage covered in rippled sand, against a black mirror that occupies the entire rear wall, Hathaway's unnamed F-16 pilot stands with her back to the audience, wearing a flight suit and helmet. Surrounded by darkness and illuminated by a tight beam of light, she stands beneath a shower of what looks at first like water but as the eye adjusts is revealed to be sand, which bounces right off her.

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That flight suit is like a second skin, the pilot explains in direct address, as she shares the rush of being "in the blue." She rains down missiles on desert fortresses, and returns them to particles of sand, getting out of there even before the explosion happens. Adopting a folksy Wyoming accent and a cocky attitude, Hathaway swaggers through the pilot's account of drinks with the boys while on leave. A local named Eric, the rare civilian confident enough to make it past a bunch of drunken Air Force guys to hit on her, impresses with his maneuvers. Three days of wild sex follow, and for the first time, she's sad when leave is over.

"Like some '50s movie. I've got my little woman at home, know who I'm fighting for. All that true corn. True cheese."

The resulting pregnancy gets her moved to a desk job, and despite her skepticism, marriage and motherhood turn out to be OK. But three years later, the urge to be alone in the sky again kicks in. Eric understands. She reports to her commander and learns she will not be reunited with her beloved F-16. Instead, she's assigned to the "chair force," flying drones from behind a video monitor in an air-conditioned trailer in the Nevada desert. She feels it's a punishment for getting pregnant, but her commander assures her, "In one year, the drone will be king."

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This setup is related in language both pithy and poetic, as Hathaway establishes an easygoing rapport with the audience, with an underlying tension. Illustrating Taymor's facility for making evocative visuals out of the simplest tricks, the pilot's helmet serves first as her pregnant belly and then as her child. Projection designer Peter Nigrini's video components also help keep the story vivid and the pace brisk, with Hathaway enveloped by a full-floor sonogram, or zipping along the Interstate in the move to Vegas, or wrapped in a kaleidoscope of neon once she gets there.

The assembly of a drone on the tarmac is accompanied by raptor-like blueprint visuals; the pilot reveals that this will be her only direct contact with her $11 million aircraft. She works seven-day stretches of 12-hour shifts, staring at a putty-gray world on the screen. At first she feels the old charge as she eliminates "military-age males," following instructions from a voice in her headset. But when she starts noticing body parts flying in the cloud from an explosion, she slowly begins to come undone. The jarring normality of returning home to her husband and child each night messes with her head, and soon her sleeping daughter starts to look like putty.

Christopher Akerlind's lighting is key in constantly reshaping the pilot's environment with laser-like precision, while Elliot Goldenthal's music and soundscapes summon a world both familiar and alienating. A scene in a shopping mall, for instance, uses video, light and sound elements to riveting effect, showing that few directors marry the theatrical with the cinematic quite like Taymor.

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It's easy to see what drew Hathaway to Grounded, and her interest in turn no doubt prompted the Public Theater to stage a play given a well-received New York production only last year. It's choice material for an actor, requiring unerring focus as bravado warps into a god complex before giving way to uneasiness, paranoia and crushing fragility. Becoming invisible awakens the pilot to the human toll of war, and ultimately to the vulnerability of us all in a depersonalized world where "everything is witnessed." The risk of death in combat has been removed, but the threat to sanity remains.

Unlike her captivating work in the Public's Twelfth Night in 2009, Hathaway's movie-star wattage is an impediment to full immersion here. But her performance moves effectively through the play's intensifying stages, balancing control with raw feeling and white-knuckle fear. If the expected visceral gut punch doesn't quite arrive, that might be because Brant's ending seems melodramatic. And perhaps all the directorial pyrotechnics, while making this production unusually dynamic for a solo show, contribute to a certain detachment from the experience being portrayed.

Cast: Anne Hathaway
Director: Julie Taymor
Playwright: George Brant
Set designer: Riccardo Hernandez
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound designer: Will Pickens
Projection designer: Peter Nigrini
Electronic music design: Richard Martinez
Original music & soundscapes: Elliot Goldenthal
Presented by the Public Theater

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