Targeting the Drones

Borderlands' new political production Grounded looks at the personal cost of war

Borderlands Theater has made a soaring start to its new season.

Although the name of the play is Grounded—and it's a perfect title—George Brant has created a dynamic, involving, and moving piece, and Borderlands gives us an experience unlike much of what we see in the theater. The one-woman play and its compelling presentation is intense and disturbing, a flight into unknown skies for most of us. It leaves us somber, thoughtful, appreciative.

The nexus of our journey is an unnamed woman, an F-16 fighter pilot (Alida Holguin Gunn) who loves her job—its power, its excitement, its danger. She is sure, solid, and can more than equal the men who share her top-gun status. She loves being in the vastness of the blue skies and believes fiercely that the blue is in her, that her own powers are vast, and that this power defines her. To her it is freedom. No emotional attachments. Just the blue in her, and she in it.

She meets a guy, Eric, while enjoying a beer with the boys. He is attracted to her power and its costume--he's turned on by her fly suit. They have casual sex. She becomes pregnant. And that grounds her; she can no longer fly.  She understands why, but feels defeated by her reassignment to the "Chair Force," as she derisively refers to it.

No longer commissioned to fight in the deserts of Iraq, she settles in another desert, near Las Vegas, with Eric and their daughter, Samantha. Now, from the safety of a comfortable chair, she works gruelingly long hours staring at a video screen with a team who fly a different kind of plane: an "unmanned aerial vehicle," a UAV—a drone.

The hours, the monotony, the commute all wear on her and her family, and we watch her painful devolution. No longer does she come home once a year; she makes the trip every night. It's an odd and unrefreshing rhythm. No longer does she feel a part of that blue that nourished her, where she tasted freedom. She becomes obsessed with the feeling of being watched, of the cameras in the mall, in dressing rooms—eyes are everywhere. She knows; she controls such eyes.

Perhaps most dramatically, now her own eyes see the faces of those who are her targets. No longer does her mission mean bombing away at anonymous figures in context-less settings. The drone's camera can focus on potential victims in Afghanistan, and the pilot half a world away sees these people, sees their faces, the faces of children just like hers. And this changes everything.

Brant has written an intriguing piece. It feels sparse, but intense, like poetry. He gives us an interesting character, not an uncommon one really, and imbues her with clarity of purpose, a straightforward view of the world. His approach is quite economical, but this economy doesn't skimp on the detail we need to care about his the pilot. And although his story could have easily become a political statement, Brandt maneuvers successfully around that potential pothole and really lets the fullness of his character and her journey be its own statement. It is a fullness that resonates, and the pilot's disintegrating embodiment of that fullness ricochets in our awareness, and leaves us troubled.

Gunn gives a wonderfully crafted performance. She carries her heavy load with honesty and toughness and insight, and never waivers. It's an intimate performance, including us as she discovers a strange new world in which the landscape of war has changed, and which can distort, disable and possibly destroy a soldier who was once so strong and spirited.

Borderlands artistic director Barclay Goldsmith directs the piece, and perhaps his best achievement was getting Gunn to play the pilot. Without such a strong actor, the theater experience could be disastrous, no matter how sure a hand a director might have. Goldsmith has had designer Andres Volovsek put together a no-frills set, which is totally appropriate for this no-frills play. There is a somewhat complicated element, a video screen where projections give us a sense of place, particularly as it relates to the pilot's "flights," whether the blue sky of her actual F-16 missions, or the flickering screen which symbolizes her demoralizing drone duties. It works well.

This production is part of a "rolling world premiere," partially sponsored by an organization called the National New Play Network. A new play is given separate productions in three different cities over a period of twelve months, which gives the playwright an opportunity to see how different groups approach the piece and giving audiences opportunities to see emerging works. Grounded has been produced by the San Francisco Playhouse and will be produced in a few months in Kansas City. But this script is far from a rough draft. It is a fully developed piece which plays very effectively.

Unfortunately, there were perhaps only 25 audience members on opening night. Borderlands' productions have been inconsistent in quality in the last couple of years. However, with its focus on new plays and issues unique not only to our geographical borders, but all issues which might divide us, the group has a unique identity and purpose in Tucson's theater landscape.

Grounded gives us not only a high-flying theater experience, but reminds us that Borderlands can still deliver quality work. It deserves out support.