TAMPA — From the opening seconds of Grounded, Tampa Repertory Theatre's production of George Brant's one-act play, you know who will be flying this plane.
Emilia Sargent delivers all of the dialogue with a minimal set (a high-backed office chair) and nothing but air in her hands, narrating a war story that feels up-to-the-minute and uncomfortably believable. The unnamed Air Force pilot wears a zippered flight suit of Sargent's design, her identity in a war machine that regards its fighters as expendable parts. One actor cannot deliver so much exposition and drive the story forward at the speed of an F-16, but this show moves fast enough and executes surprising maneuvers before landing.
Originally scheduled to open Jan. 6, Grounded was pushed back a week after Sargent got the flu. Now back at the controls, the show is in good hands.
The play ran in 2015 at the off-Broadway Public Theatre, starring Anne Hathaway. It won a Smith Prize for political theater and was named one of the Guardian's Top 10 plays of 2013.
C. David Frankel, Tampa Repertory's co-founder and artistic director, directs this show, making the most of the University of South Florida's L-shaped studio space and a somewhat watery sound system to achieve a remarkably sure-footed production. A subtle lighting design by Anthony Vito and music composed by Igor Santos, paints the stage in ways that suit each phase of her autobiographical story.
It starts in the sky — "the blue," as the pilot calls this space, a poetic myth that drives the young toward fighter planes. She arrives at the complication quickly, a pregnancy that results in a hasty marriage and a daughter. Upon returning, the Air Force major learns her bosses have reassigned her from Afghanistan to a trailer in a Nevada desert, where she and a couple of partners will operate lethal drone strikes against suspected terrorists.
In this switch, Sargent's pilot loses the first coat of a cocky veneer. She learns that killing without physical risk through a cat-and-mouse game that plays out on a computer screen entails just as much trauma as flying a jet, if not more.
The trauma starts with the loss of agency defined by her new space, which she jokingly compares to a typing pool or the "Chair Force."
"No one comes back from the Chair Force," she says. "It's the Bermuda Triangle."
While that reassignment at first seems sexist, Brant deprives the audience of easy conclusions. The move also comes at a time when F-16s and other fighter jets are becoming increasingly obsolete. The drones that have replaced them save American lives, but you get the feeling the real motivation is saving costs. For the pilot, that loss of agency coincides with strong overtones of PTSD, skillfully denoted by impersonal descriptions of sex with her husband and her difficulty adjusting to domestic life, including her adoring family.
Sargent handles these transitions deftly, turning her character controls like a dimmer switch over 90 minutes. Her state might be deteriorating, but her foreshadowed warnings about a world of indifferent combat, of hidden cameras feeding visual data to hostile forces, are just coming into focus.
"Know this," she tells the audience. "Know that you are not safe."
It's well worth going along for the ride.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.