'Grounded' At Westport Playhouse: Sit Down And Fly Right


The show: "Grounded" at Westport Country Playhouse

What is it?: A one-actor, one-act play by George Brant that had two well-received production off-Broadway, one starring Anne Hathaway and staged by Julie Taymor. 

What's is about?: A contemporary drama about a US Air Force fighter pilot who is grounded to a desk job -- "the pilot's nightmare" -- by an unexpected pregnancy and finds herself navigating drones from an office near Las Vegas.

What makes it special?: For one it stars Elizabeth Stahlmann, a recent graduate of Yale School of Drama., in her first high-profile gig out of the gate. Adding to the synergy is that the director is Liz Diamond, chair of Yale School of Drama’s Directing department and resident director at Yale Repertory Theatre. who was Stahlmann's teacher. They make a great team here.

So a woman in the armed services gets desk duty because of her pregnancy. So?: It's not just any desk. It's one with a toggle switch that rains down bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, via stealth planes. But this unnamed pilot (she's just listed as "Pilot" in the program)  discovers that being in the "chair force" is a different experience for her. It's one thing to be an ace F-16 fighter up in the wild blue and being miles away and tens of thousands of feet oil the air by the time the explosions hit the ground. It's another thing to be witnessing the destruction via sky cams.

That's there nature of war, isn't it?: Yep, but technology has changed things. The realities of war, especially juxtaposed to her cozy but strangely lonely suburban life with  a loving husband and young child that the character can now have. “I will see my daughter grow up,” she says. “I will kiss my husband good night every night. No tracer fire. ...The threat of death has been removed.” 

But soon the emotionally isolated life in the middle of this other desert tracking perceived and perhaps mis-perceived "bad guys" takes its toll here when things are more up-close, personal and relatable.

Empathy's a bitch: Pretty much that's at the core of it all. Carrying the show on her slight but strong frame, Stahlmann gives an impressive and commanding performance, filled with flair, humor and nuance. This character, which could be a bragging bore in lesser hands, is fascinating as played by Stahlmann. As her character's hyper-alpha confidence begins to crack and her swagger starts to sway, we see the unraveling of a psyche, the collision of worlds and the challenges to identify. But...

Oh-oh, a 'but'...After more that an hour of engaging narrative and character details (though a bit thick with rhapsodic talk of the big blue sky), the play falters in the final stretch, ending -- however logically -- not with a bang but with a whimper. Still, the production is extremely well done and fairly satisfying. You also get to see a terrific performance by an up-and-coming actor.

Production values: Riccardo Hernandez' steely scenic is simple but effective and acts as a fine backdrop for Solomon Weisbard's lighting design.  Kate Marvin's  sound design also enhances the production. But the show is most dependent on Yana Birykova's projections, giving us an idea of what this pilot is seeing. (However, the specificity of human destruction is too vague to register the pilot's horror and epic change in attitude.)

Who will like it?: Empowered women. Veterans --at least some of them -- who want to put a light on the human traumas they face.

Who won't?:  Insecure men. Veterans -- at least some of them -- who do not want to show cracks in the system in the fight against any enemy. 

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: The work might be strengthened by the population of other actors. Some scenes demand to be shown, not just spoken about. It just might work better as a feature film, though the ending for me as written here still fades when it should soar.

Some off-stage facts: “Grounded” has received over 100 productions in 18 different countries and has been translated into nine languages.  Named a “Top 10 London Play of 2013” by both The Guardian and Evening Standard, “Grounded” has been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to be adapted into an opera with music by Tony Award-winner Jeanine Tesori, and is also being developed into a feature film starring Hathaway.

The Basics: Runs through July 29. Shows are at Tuesday sat 7 p.m., Wednesdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.  Single tickets start at $30; Running time is 93 minutes.. Box office at 203.227.4177. .www.westportplayhouse.org.