Let’s face it: we all prefer to read reviews in which the reviewer lays into the production without mercy. But this will not be one of those reviews. After seeing the Red Stitch’s remount of its outstanding production of Grounded (by George Brant), I have not a single complaint. Grounded is a flawless piece of theatre.
Kate Cole stars as a nameless fighter pilot, who is “top shit” in her field, and swaggers around the stage in the play’s opening minutes radiating self-assurance. She feels most alive in the sky – “the blue” – and considers her flight suit a part of her, the cornerstone of her identity. While on leave, she has a three-day fling with a man named Eric, and her flight suit starts to get tight. She takes a pregnancy test. “Pink. I’m pink.” She tells Eric. He’s happy, and she’s happy, and when the baby is born she takes three years off.
When she returns to work, her plane is gone. She’s not going back up to the blue. She is now a drone operator – a member of “The Chair Force” as she disparagingly calls it – and she’s not happy. Each day, she drives across the Nevada desert and sits in a chair for twelve hours, staring at the grey “putty world” through the all-seeing, all-knowing eyes of the drone, living for the moment she can push a button and obliterate “the guilty”.
After her first few kills, all carried out from the safety of her chair, things start unravelling. She starts seeing the world through the grey putty lens: “I see myself as I drive what I would look like. A tiny grey car driving through a grey desert. Tiny and grey and guilty.” She pulls over to lay Pepsi bottles and cold chips in the desert sand as makeshift headstones for the people she has killed. When she gets home, her daughter looks grey. The pilot doesn’t know where she is anymore. She is not herself. Things are not right.
Once upon a time, war heroes went off to war. For months at a time they would live and breathe it, distracting each other when the fighting was done with beer and games of pool. Out of sight, out of mind. But what happens when the war is brought home? What happens when war heroes come home every night to kiss their children good night and watch mindless TV before sleeping beside their husbands and wives? Grounded is a story about war, but it is really a story about people, and safety, and mental health.
Kate Cole is superb in this one-woman show. From the moment she walks onstage, you cannot take your eyes off her. She imbues the role with humour, warmth and humanity, always retaining the character’s dignity even when she travels to the darkest places of the human psyche. In a play that hinges entirely on the performance of a single actor, Cole is a star.
Matthew Adey’s design is similarly outstanding. The set consists of an impressive white box that runs the length, breadth and depth of the stage, reminiscent of viewfinders and psych wards. Grounded has some of the most effective lighting and sound design I have seen, evoking searching spotlights, darkened rooms, open deserts and ultimately conjuring the confused landscape of a character descending into mental disarray. Direction by Kirsten von Bibra is flawless,and Stage Manager Jillian Britton and Production Manager Jenn Taylor are both to be congratulated for their work in bringing the whole thing together.
Grounded is a masterpiece. I was so engrossed I forgot to drink my wine. I hardly moved from beginning to end. I barely breathed. When the lights came up it took all my strength not to sob hysterically, as I was finally released from the intense and intimate magic spell that, along with fearless and masterful artistry, made Grounded one of the highlights of my theatre going life.