Despite the risk, the notoriously private Charles Lindbergh occasionally slipped into the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to stare at his famous airplane The Spirit of St. Louis, the other half of “We,” his autobiography. It was communion between pilot and machine, an intimacy Lindbergh couldn’t find in human connections.
This close bond is also felt by an Air Force flier with Tiger, the F-16 fighter she flies in America’s recent conflicts — “same desert, different war” or “same war, different desert.” It’s all part of the joy that keeps her aloft, along with the dangers, the “Top Gun” camaraderie and the solitude and beauty of The Blue where she soars. Lindbergh would understand.
Kelly McAndrew’s satisfied smile as the confident Pilot opens George Brant’s intense one-act, one-actor drama at City Theatre’s Hamburg Studio. It’s the first in a wide arc of conflicted emotions she’ll express movingly as her character loses altitude in the presence of today’s military technology.
Ms. McAndrew’s performance equals the power of Teagle F. Bougere’s efforts as the sole actor in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s “An Iliad,” which closed Sunday. As the United States hunts an acceptable exit from Afghanistan after closing the door on Iraq, our culture is coming to grips with the fallout as evidenced by both plays.
“Grounded’s” message is more personal and ambiguous, unlike the universal reach of “An Iliad.” When the Pilot loses her vital role, that satisfied confidence sags into dangerous territory.
Her swagger usually kept the men at a distance, except Eric, who finds her flight suit arousing. Soon she’s pregnant, then grounded. Marriage and motherhood are temporary replacements — “like some ’50s movie, I’ve got my little woman at home, know who I’m fighting for. All that true corn, true cheese” — until she’s assigned to the “Chair Force” as the pilot of remotely controlled drones circling Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, she stares at the black-and-white images beamed back to her Nevada base of gray desert and tiny dots from the drone’s 10 cameras.
Playwright Brant emphasizes this “Gorgon stare” of constant military surveillance, likening it to the array of domestic cameras monitoring our moves in public spaces. “Everything is witnessed,” says the Pilot, who falls into the rabbit hole of this video game kind of war, reality held at bay until she notices the flying body parts of the drone’s victims — or are they her victims?
War is war, argues Mr. Brant, whether it’s swords face to face or Maverick missiles fired by soldiers 10,000 miles from the action.
Moving around a low platform below a four-sided screen showing images from drone cameras, Ms. McAndrew commands, demands then begs our attention, our constant witnessing to her deterioration and to the country’s war of detachment.
Subtly directed by Jenn Thompson, Ms. McAndrew’s true-to-life warrior reveals the fragile humanity beneath the armor, in this case, the Air Force flight suit. It’s an enduring performance that keeps raising questions long after the audience has drifted home.
Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Post-Gazette and occasional theater critic.