The future of warfare looks grim and dystopian. Unmanned predator drones will replace fighter jets with humans guiding them and making decisions. Militaries will pilot these sinister machines from a remove, thousands of miles from the scene, using cameras to select their bombing targets. The U.S. already operates such aircraft in conflict zones for surveillance and, increasingly, for air raids. Despite the advanced technology, civilian casualties have mounted. Fear and anger at these deployments runs high.
Grounded, a new monodrama by George Brant now at the Public Theater, looks at this development with more pity than terror, telling it from the point of view of the pilots recruited to operate these missions. The Pilot (Anne Hathaway), a chipper young woman brimming with self-confidence, narrates her story to us directly, strutting around the stage to demonstrate. A small-town girl who joins the Air Force to fly sorties overseas, she believes in her mission — locating and destroying “the guilty” in unspecified countries in the Middle East. She finds honor and comfort in the camaraderie with her fellow pilots, and purpose and excitement in overhead combat. When the Pilot returns from maternity leave, the Force offers her a job flying drones at a base in Nevada. Initially horrified at her reassignment to “the Chair Force,” she realizes that the new technology could let her have it all: participate in the war effort but return home every night to her husband and baby girl. Soon, however, the psychological effects of her daily displacement prove too much to bear.
Director Julie Taymor brings tactile immediacy to this monologue through precise and boldly immersive visuals. It’s just what we’ve come to expect from Taymor, the rare American director who approaches the stage as a three-dimensional site for composition. Here Taymor shapes pictures created with Peter Nigrini’s projections and Riccardo Hernandez’s subtle set with a mirrored back wall. The images reinforce pairings laid out in the script: We see Hathaway and her double in the mirror. The Pilot’s mind contains two deserts: One is on the opposite side of the world, where bombs take out intelligence targets in their cars; the other she commutes through on her fretful drive home.
Hathaway gives a centered, invested performance — she’s onstage the entire evening — and she’s particularly sharp
after signs of mental distress begin to surface but before they avalanche in the play’s overwrought final scenes. There’s only so much Hathaway can do with the role as written, however. Brant’s drama stays remarkably and resolutely simplistic, cautioning us with lines like, “You who watch and think that you are safe — one day it will be your turn.”
Still, the Pilot’s anguish becomes undeniably tragic, and Brant gives Hathaway an over-the-top recognition scene at the end, as she realizes the devastating effects of her actions too late. But it’s ultimately unsettling — and limiting — that the script centers so much on the consciousness of a warrior while trying to warn us about the horrors of machine proxies. The corrosive psychological effects on the fliers is just one piece of this wider tragedy, and Grounded might have gathered more force had it let in more of the wider catastrophe: the surveillance state we’ll all be living in; the impunity with which militaries may kill civilians and destroy homes; and the possible upending of codes and conventions governing nations’ conduct in battle.