Oliva Soars In Central Square’s ‘Grounded’ (5 Stars)

‘Grounded’ – Written by George Brant; Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner; Scenic Design by Steven Royal; Lighting Designer by Wen-Ling Liao; Sound design by Dewey Dellay. Presented by the Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge through March 22nd.

War is hell.

Not just for those actively involved in or affected by combat, but also for the families left behind and the entirety of the countries involved in the dispute. But it’s still the actual combatants and the unwilling participants affected by the actual violence who shoulder the heaviest burden of the trauma of war. And that affected population has come to include drone pilots, who despite operating remotely, are reporting PTSD, substance abuse issues, and suicidal ideation just like their “real” combat brethren from Iraq and Afghanistan. The plight of one such drone operator is brilliantly depicted in The Nora Theatre’s current production of ‘Grounded’, George Brant’s gripping drama set primarily in Las Vegas, which usually represents a different kind of hell.

The story opens with a female hotshot F-16 operator (known only as “The Pilot”) recounting her life as a flier, rhapsodizing about her adventures in “the blue”. She’s one of the guys, and her whole identity is tied into her being a flier – the thrill of combat missions and the hard-drinking with her fellow pilots after a mission. Following a three day tryst with the man of her dreams that she met at a flyer bar, she is grounded when she learns she is pregnant with her daughter. She marries the man and settles into the role of wife and mother and is seemingly happy – until the sky begins to call to her again. She re-enlists, but now the Air Force is looking for a different kind of pilot – drone operators that stalk and kill enemy targets, just like a video game. So instead of taking off into the wild blue yonder with reckless abandon, she now sits in front of a computer screen in an air-conditioned and windowless trailer near Las Vegas as a member of what she derisively refers to as the “Chair Force.”

The adjustment is humbling, and reminds me a bit of the section in “The Right Stuff” where fighter pilots are similarly recruited to just sit in a spacecraft that orbits the earth without doing anything…heroic. The boredom doesn’t last long for the new drone operator however, as she is catapulted into the war and all its nightmare-producing horror from 8,000 miles away, and this is where the play goes from a relatively compelling story to a psycholgical thriller. When she stalks and kills her first “military age males” in a desert thousands of miles away, the thrill is back – complete with sweating palms, racing heart, and high fives all around after a successful combat mission.
But it’s different. It’s still war, technically, but now it’s the kind of war that’s broken into 12 hour shifts, and at one point she directly asks the audience what kind of book would The Odyssey have been if the hero went home to his family each night? The play documents the psychological toll that it takes on The Pilot and her loved ones as she extinguishes “the guilty” then returns home to her loving family only hours later.

The Pilot is portrayed by the talented Celeste Oliva, whom I have only seen previously in comic roles. Despite her physical beauty, she is as hard-boiled and macho as any military man, with the cocky swagger of a fighter pilot, and her performance is mesmerizing, especially as the dual roles of wife and mother/soldier begin to pull her apart and she begins to lose her grip on what is real. Brant’s rat-a-tat dialogue requires a highly skilled performer, and Oliva’s  is an absolutely brilliant performance.
The intimate setting of the Central Square theater lends itself beautifully to this production, and set designer Steven Royal creates a believable world inside the trailer with the multiple screens used to survey the combat landscape. The precise lighting and sound cues had to have been executed perfectly, (no easy task in a fast moving production such as this) and the work appeared to be seamless. Central Square has opened up 2015 with two brilliantly written and executed offerings (the other being “St. Joan”), and I’m looking forward to their next production. In the meantime, just go see ‘Grounded’. For more info, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/grounded/