“Grounded” is a one-woman show that chronicles an Air Force pilot’s transition from flying actual fighter jets to becoming part of what she deems the “Chair Force.” Not previously familiar with George Brant’s play, I definitely was not prepared for the emotional rollercoaster this production proved to be. “Grounded” is a dramatic study in guilt, restlessness, unrealized dreams, paranoia, and eventually, madness. It is the kind of study that can really only be delineated in a theatre. Actor Joan Smith sustains what seems akin to a ninety-minute intense psychological examination where the audience acts as the examiner. Her character’s mental competency and emotional stability are the subjects of this study.
…no actor has so energetically embodied a persona like Smith does in this production…a gem…
The adrenaline rush that she gets from flying through the expansive blue initially serves as this character’s raison d’etre. She is enlivened by it and she is also seemingly willing to die for it. When a pregnancy sidelines her, the character’s mood and perspective quickly change. Can she be “just” a wife and mother? Can she exist separately from her beloved fighter jet, separate from the sky? This is the question that the bulk of the play seeks to answer.
Upon beginning her new career as a drone pilot, the character must quickly transition from days filled with limitless blue to tiny screens that are only grey. In fact, she comes to interpret virtually everything in her life in these self-limiting shades of grey, even her own child. The grey soon consumes her, until she begins to translate “normal” everyday events, such as shopping at the mall or having sex with her husband, into drone-produced data. Her mind’s default, in other words, is the codified language of war. Interestingly, the character repeatedly makes reference to the peculiarity attendant upon the fact that she must come home from “war” every evening. She indignantly muses that “The Odyssey ” would “have been a very different story if Odysseus came home everyday.” It is perhaps this incongruous reality that contributes to her gradual breakdown—the chaos of war versus the tenuous comfortability of a home life.
Joan Smith is the lone actor on the stage and yet, she’s actually not. She is accompanied by her growing psychosis. That Smith can transform the inner workings of her mind into a veritable character here is impressive indeed. Of the numerous one-person shows I have seen, admittedly, no actor has so energetically embodied a persona like Smith does in this production. Her movements, her expressions, the fluctuations in tone and volume are consistently pitched at a level that anyone would be hard-pressed to keep up with. How she does not simply collapse from sheer exhaustion at the end of it all is a mystery.
We believe in this character’s restlessness, frustration, growing paranoia, and finally her descent into madness. This belief is easily won given Smith’s expertly-fought efforts. Director Jessica Phelps West does a tremendous job of leading the audience to water while letting Smith convince them to drink. There is a “fill-in-the-blank” feel to this production inasmuch as given the script and overall staging, we are constantly left wondering what comes next. Rest assured, we find out, but Phelps West and Smith leave us dangling just long enough to make it an extremely satisfying experience.
The projection design by Adrian Cameron, combined with the lighting choices by Mary Parker and sound effects by Michael Keck truly help flesh this production out into something that is at once richly complex and also all-too starkly representative of the inside of this character’s mind. Kudos to Michael Keck, soundscape artist and composer, who intuitively seems to understand that sometimes background music and “noise” can be so much more—and in this case, they are. In Character Productions has produced a gem with “Grounded.” Transporting audiences into the interior of someone’s psyche is no easy feat and, with this show, they succeed tenfold.
Running time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
“Grounded” runs through August 20, 2023 presented by In Character Productions in partnership with Touchstones Discussion Project at Bowen Theatre in The Maryland Hall, 801 Chase Street, Annapolis, MD 21401. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.