Spellbinding ‘Grounded’ soars at Dobama Theatre
By Bob Abelman
For a show titled “Grounded,” where its only character never leaves the stage for the 90 minutes of its production, this play has certainly been on quite a journey.
Local playwright George Brant’s drama was first produced with a rolling premiere in California, Arizona and Missouri, where it won the National New Play Network’s 2012 Smith Prize for political theater. It picked up a First Place award at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and was part of the Cleveland Play House’s New Ground Theatre Festival in 2014 after receiving a Drama Desk Award nomination for its off-Broadway production earlier that year. It has since received more than 100 productions in 17 different countries.
“Grounded” is now on stage at Dobama Theater with New York-based director Alice Reagan at the helm and Anjanette Hall – winner of last year’s Cleveland Jewish News “Best Performance by an Actress in a Drama” award – in the lead.
Consider Hall a contender for that same award in 2018.
She plays an ace Air Force pilot whose career flying an F-16 into combat is scuttled due to an unexpected pregnancy. Reassigned to operate a military drone from a windowless trailer outside Las Vegas, she hunts terrorists in Afghanistan by monitor by day and returns home to her husband and young daughter each night – a mixed blessing for a soldier accustomed to fighting the war firsthand and hanging with fellow pilots between missions.
“Every day they greet me home from the war,” she says. “It would be a different book ‘The Odyssey’ / If Odysseus came home every day / Every single day / A very different book.”
Brant’s drama touches on a range of hot-button topics, including the morality of drone warfare, the infusion of women in a traditionally male profession, and what PTSD looks like in a modern military where the threat of death and the accountability of killing have been one-step removed by state-of-the-art technology.
But “Grounded” is at its best relaying a personal tale of trauma, delivered through direct address, stream of consciousness self-disclosures that are earthbound in their focus but celestial in their imagery and lyrical in their expression. In short, Brant has written 90 minutes of uninterrupted epic poetry that transforms the literal into the abstract and is absolutely spell-binding.
It is performed on a minimalistic set designed by Tesia Benson – a crisscrossing tarmacadam runway where three points lead nowhere and the fourth, which is never trotted upon by the actor, dramatically climbs upward toward the great wide open – that captures the pilot’s mental landscape.
All this is backlit by Marcus Dana with shifting hues that reflect the pilot’s moods, the gray of her monitor and the blue sky she sorely misses. A subtle diegetic soundtrack created by Megan Culley enriches the storytelling and, as with the other production elements orchestrated by the director, never distracts from the hard labor being executed by Hall.
The audience is asked by the playwright to be the pilot’s sympathetic confidante for the evening and Hall’s intriguing performance of his exquisite narrative easily wins us over.
Her masculine posture, foul mouth and confident swagger gets our initial attention. But it is Hall’s attention to small details in her phrasing and pacing that holds it, and it is the maternal gaze that sporadically surfaces and the emotional fragility that slowly takes over that keeps our eyes riveted to the stage.
The 90 minutes of “Grounded” fly by at Mach 2 with all the g-force one expects from theater but rarely gets.
WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Hts.
WHEN: Through Feb. 11
TICKETS & INFO: $30–$32, call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on January 20, 2018.
Lead image: Anjanette Hall. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography