Dramatic License Clouds the Truths
By George Brant
Olney Theatre Center with Everyman Theatre, Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, Olney, Maryland
Sunday, March 15, 2015, middle second row of studio theater
Directed by Derek Goldman
The husband of the Air Force pilot in George Brant's new play Grounded—the guy who loves her unconditionally and is super-supportive of her career and super-sensitive to her needs as both an Air Force officer and as a woman and is a great lover in bed, too—his name is Eric. I'm just sayin'.
Megan Anderson as the Pilot in Olney Theatre Center's production of George Brant's Grounded. Below, the Pilot flying her drone on Luciana Stecconi's set. Photos by ClintonBPhotography, Olney Theatre Center.
The fact that a guy named Eric is the perfect husband for the character only identified as "the Pilot" is one of several important truths in Brant's one-woman play about a fighter pilot assigned to fly drones from a trailer in the Nevada desert, dropping bombs on Middle East targets, who develops post-traumatic stress syndrome as a consequence. However, the play also relies on many exaggerations and misrepresentations that would be flagged by people familiar with the Air Force, such as my wife, a retired colonel with 29 years of service, the bulk of that as an aircraft maintenance officer, who has taken part in combat missions (and such as her unconditionally loving, supportive, super-sensitive, and super-sexy husband). This mixed bag of truths, partial truths, and nontruths ultimately does a disservice to a play that not only accurately portrays PTSD's insidious effects on military men and women but also addresses the moral and ethical questions surrounding drone warfare.
The Derek Goldman–helmed production at Olney Theatre Center starring Megan Anderson as the Pilot is the first of two presentations of Grounded on our agenda this year; in May we are scheduled to see Julie Taymor's version at the Public Theater in New York starring Anne Hathaway.
Goldman gives the Pilot a rolling desk chair, her only prop on the Luciana Stecconi–designed set that is bare except for banks of video screens on either side of the stage and video panels forming the back wall. We see what the Pilot sees—and what she doesn't see—on these screens. Lighting Designer Harold F. Burgess II shifts us through the scenes, from domestic home life to the open desert in the hot day and starry night, and to the drone team's trailer on Creech Air Force Base, 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Costume Designer Ivania Stack has it easy: a flight suit.
In his script, Brant is exacting in his description of the unnamed Pilot: in fact, he uses the Air Force's standards for qualifying as a pilot, not only in height, weight, and body fat but also in eyesight, mental acuity, physical fitness, and general health, including the requirement that "she should have no allergies or asthma after 12 years of age." Brant also was determined that the Pilot should be a woman. "Somehow, having a woman's voice in connection with a new technology brings a certain newness and freshness to the play as a whole," he says in the program's dramaturgical notes by Naomi Greenberg-Slovin. "The story of war has been told so many times from a male perspective." Fair enough, and the program itself plays up women's roles in modern warfare. But this is not a tale of feminism.
Let's be clear here: The Pilot is a fighter jock first and foremost, a personality who, as Brant presents it and Anderson plays it, transcends gender identity. She's a cocky badass. She spews more F-bombs in single sentences than her F-16 shoots Sidewinders on a training run. She's a lone shark in the blue sky she loves, up there maneuvering a supersonic machine with a joy stick, dropping bombs on F-bombing bad guys, no need to take names. On the ground, the adrenalin rush never subsides, manifested in fast cars, loud metal music, drunken revelry with other fighter pilots, and supersonic sex with any guy willing to get through the gauntlet of her (mostly male) buddies. Most guys run when they find out what she does, the Pilot tells us, but not Eric. "This one kisses me in the parking lot like the rock star I am," she says. Sex with this guy is so good because he insists she keeps her flight suit on.
Here was my first "huh?" Maybe I lack imagination, but flight suits don't seem conducive to sex (and may I say for the record that seeing my wife in a uniform was never a sexual turn-on for me; rather, I saw a professional Air Force officer who filled me with pride, whether she was in her mess dress, service blues, or desert cammies). Brant's and Anderson's presentation of the fighter jock mentality is accurate. I've seen pilots work the Officer's Club lounges, I've encountered my share of "I am God" complexes, and I personally know fighter pilots who didn't even like having a backseater flying with them, preferring single-seat fighters and attack aircraft like the F-16 the Pilot in Grounded flies. Still, the Pilot's F-you attitude spins into overexaggeration.
But this is a drama. We wouldn't pay to sit and watch most of the pilots I know gab on about their lives for 75 minutes sans intermission; and while we all know some people like Iago, to use an example of Shakespeare's portrayal of a military man, his extremity is what makes for interesting drama. So though she's an exaggeration, let's not criticize the Pilot's depiction itself. It's her story that has gaps of legitimacy. She treats her F-16, which she calls Tiger, as if it's her own horse; but no major has her own aircraft in today's Air Force. When she becomes pregnant she has to give up flying temporarily, which is accurate, but her pregnancy leave lasts for the "first few years" of her daughter's life. Even if she were in the Air Force Reserve or National Guard, servicemembers don't just take time off from their military careers for a "few years" (in fact, many military leaders are trying to institute such a concept, called "continuum of service," in all branches of the military and encountering bureaucratic and cultural resistance).
These may be quibbling bits, but the biggest dramatic license Brant takes with his story has tremendous ramifications to the ultimate point of his story: As the Pilot begins showing the effects of PTSD, her commander sets her up for failure on a mission. "We had our eye on you, Major, for weeks," the commander declares. "The warning signs. Everything is witnessed." This works into Brant's overall "eye in the sky" theme (even incorporating the Alan Parson's hit of that name), that American use of drones is part of an evolving specter of Big Brother surveillance encroaching on all aspects of our culture. The Pilot begins obsessing over surveillance cameras at the mall and in department store dressing rooms, fueling her paranoia in her PTSD-induced state.
Nevertheless, the commander's comment and final plot twist seem more intended to paint the big bad military complex as the play's antagonist. As my wife, three times a unit commander herself, said after the play, "We'd never let her keep flying the drones; once we see problems, we get them out of the chair." The thing about the big military complex is that pilots are assets, to be protected and preserved, along with their multimillion or billion dollar aircraft (the drone she crashes costs almost $14 million). The person ultimately responsible for the lost drone? Her commander. Any commander who would see warning signs and leave them unaddressed would be quickly reassigned to a do-nothing job in some headquarters biding time until his or her nonceremonial retirement.
This is not quibbling because the Pilot's real antagonist is PTSD. Yes, though they are not physically in a combat zone, drone pilots suffer this very real malady because they are yet psychologically in the combat zone—more so, even, than if they were flying in the fighter aircraft. Witnessing carnage up close and personally is a fomenting factor for PTSD. Because the drone continues orbiting its target to assess damage after a strike, drone pilots see what the missiles they've unleashed have done to places and people. Then, they leave work and take their kids to soccer games that same day. "We get to kick ass and screw our husbands and kiss our kids' forehead goodnight, and that's something a fighter pilot never had, never," the Pilot says. Sounds great at first, but lost is the psychological transition. "It would be a different book, The Odyssey, if Odysseus came home every day, every single day," she says. "A very different book."
Drone pilots get no opportunity to decompress before going home to spouse and children as people serving in-theater get, and they have no one to decompress with. Drone piloting is top-secret work, and not even fellow pilots on base, let alone anyone in your family, are allowed to know what you did inside those trailers. Furthermore, the top-secret nature of PTSD's cause makes it all the more difficult on drone pilots' families, who are as much victims of the disease as the military member and have no way of providing counsel and no clue in how to cope. Eric's mission subtly shifts from supporting the Pilot to protecting their daughter.
Anderson gets a physical workout over the course of her 75-minute performance: Like a shark, her Pilot can't stop moving as she stalks her history for us. She also gets an emotional workout. She starts as the adrenalin-fueled hyperactive fighter jock downrange, quickly embraces in full her absolute adoration of her husband and daughter, and then suffers the blunt-force blow to her pride upon being assigned to the "Chair Force" instead of returning to ride Tiger. At the end, though, this proud, loving, frenetic Pilot begins to break down on all psychological fronts—emotional and intellectual—under the arcing effects of the neurons in her brain becoming crosswired. In the end, we see only helplessness in the Pilot's face, and near exhaustion in Anderson playing her. In his instructions to the actress playing the Pilot, Brant says, "When other characters enter the Pilot's story, the Pilot does not fully inhabit them; she is not an actress." That is a key point. We are always getting the Pilot's perspective, and it's funny when she mimics her commander assigning her to the drone mission; it's not funny when, by the end, she doesn't even know what her own perspective is.
Though PTSD is the centerpiece of Grounded's plot, the play's primary purpose is to address the ethics of drone warfare: unengaged killing. It's a debate that predates drones, to the dawn of military use of air power to deliver munitions. Bombing soldiers and civilians from above was considered criminal until armies developed ways to counter air power, from the ground and in the air. But currently there is no armed means of countering those who pilot drones. The drone can be eliminated by enemy fire, but the pilots are not in actual danger. This is something the Pilot herself notes, contending that it doesn't seem fair to fight that way and that it actually makes her less of a pilot, as her buddies downrange in their F-16s face real danger every time they take hold of the joystick.
But as we see by the play's end, the Pilot is very much in danger.
March 20, 2015