‘Grounded’ Brings Issue of Military Drones to the Stage

The Rep’s “Grounded” is a powerful meditation on living–and killing–via remote control.

One of the contrasts that runs through George Brant’s rich tone poem of a play, Grounded, is the “blue” vs. the “gray.” For the unnamed fighter pilot at the center of the story, the “blue” is the sky, the world she once called her home. Hillary Leben’s evocative projections envelop the audience in the “blue” from the first few minutes of the play. It’s a cloud-framed expanse projected on a parachute silk draped on the back of the stage, or a twilit suburban landscape that suggests the pilot’s home. 

But as the story unfolds, the blue is replaced by the “gray,” the cool, pixelated video feed from a camera mounted on The Reaper, a remotely piloted attack drone that eventually replaces “Tiger,” her beloved F-16. 

Jessie Fisher in “Grounded.”
Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Since it won the National New Play Network’s Smith Prize in 2012, Grounded has been produced by several American theaters, including a high-profile, New York edition featuring Anne Hathaway (directed by Julie Taymor). The Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s staging, which features a deeply felt performance by Chicago actor Jessie Fisher, shows why. Grounded is both a devastating examination of a headline-worthy social issue (the ever expanding deployment of military drones in combat), and a potent meditation on the impact of technology–surveillance in particular–on our lives.

The technology is certainly present in director Laura Braza’s staging in the Rep’s Steimke Theatre. The Reaper’s video feed is seen on the parachute “screen,” and on a bank of hi-def video monitors on an offstage wall. But this is a very human story, and Fisher’s solo performance is what keeps and holds our attention. At first, the pilot has the cocky ease of someone who is at the top of her game, even holding her own in the testosterone laden world of the local military “pilot bar.”  After she makes the switch to drone-duty (joining, the “Chair Force,” as she puts it), the rituals–and distance–of combat disappear. It becomes a job: commute to the base, sit in a chair staring at a screen for a day, make the drive home. In other words, it’s just like many other American nine-to-fives.

Jessie Fisher in “Grounded.”
Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Only it’s not, of course. The power of Brant’s play and Fisher’s performance lie in that difference—in the way her gung-ho military attitude and the soaring, g-force thrill of The Blue is transformed through the power of remote control. From the bland confines of her chair, the pilot is taking lives—The Guilty, as she calls them–with the push of a button.

It’s all a part of war’s inevitable march through the centuries: from hand-to-hand combat to musket fire to blitzkrieg carpet-bombing. Here and now, the pilot watches the fading thermal image of a body going cold—from 8000 miles away. Watching Fisher’s very “live” performance–being in the same room with a real person–is a potent reminder of the complex and tenuous connection between the real and the “virtual.”

Grounded runs until April 2, 2017 at The Rep.



Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.