SALT LAKE CITY – The room is pitch dark, and the only sound is “Every Breath you Take,” by The Police. Turning up the lights offers little more for the eyes: The theater at Sugar Space Arts Warehouse is painted black, the floor and walls serving as a flat canvas for the imagination. Once the music dims, a woman in camouflage Air Force fatigues takes center stage and begins to deliver a monologue.
She, billed only as “The Pilot,” in People Production’s Grounded, is a present day American Air Force pilot stationed in the Middle East. She has worked hard to make it in a male-dominated field because she loves to be alone in her plane, engulfed in the blue sky. Meeting a man on leave and becoming pregnant changes everything. She’s forced to leave her plane, her boys, and the sky she loves, and take a desk job for the duration of the pregnancy. The baby brings with it marriage, a move to the suburbs, and another transfer.
The Pilot’s new gig is as a drone pilot. Every day she drives an hour through the Las Vegas desert to work a twelve hour shift on base. She communicates with her team through a headset and is replaced by another pilot, mid flight, when her shift is through. This arrangement introduces an unusual disconnect between two realities: The Pilot spends 12 hours each day piloting a drone in a war on the opposite side of the world from her office; she then drives home in time to tuck her daughter into bed and share dinner with her husband.
As The Pilot, Alison Lente delivers her monologue in the present tense, allowing the audience to share her experience with her. Lente’s dynamic performance pulled the audience into each moment, her emotions palpable: her love of flight, the excitement of a new relationship, surprise and joy of her pregnancy, and apprehension for a desk job.
In George Brant’s haunting script, The Pilot’s experience becomes one of increasingly vivid internal turmoil. Her gradual journey inside herself feels natural, even if it is unfamiliar to most in the audience. The steady progress of the story is helped by The Pilot’s unstraying voice: even as her descriptions become more poignant, her distinct vernacular stays the same.
George Brant’s script is emotionally moving and breathtaking in its descriptions, and Richard Scharine directed Alison Lente in a gripping performance. I have only two complaints. First, the lighting (Mike James) brightened and dimmed often throughout the performance. Sudden bursts of light made sense when they corresponded with a bomb being dropped. But other times, I couldn’t figure out what it signified and found myself trying to keep track of whether the lights went up and down with the passage of days or with emotions or what? I never figured it out, and ultimately, the effect was distracting.
Second, Lente needed repeated help with her lines. I kept a tally after the first few times, and I counted more than 20 counts of her asking for her line. While Lente’s acting rebounded impressively after each stumble over lines, the pauses pulled me out of the play’s reality each time. I ultimately found myself on edge every time Lente expressed a strong feeling, in case she was actually just straining to remember her line, rather than acting. Its high praise of Lente’s acting that I still really enjoyed the play considering all the pauses. Still, I would highly recommend presenting the production as a “reading” if this pattern continues. Lente’s performance was spectacular, and I’d find the very occasional glance at a script far less distracting than pauses for Scharine to feed her lines.
Despite those two significant distractions, I enjoyed Grounded. Brant’s powerful script illuminates the imaginary boundaries humans place between their work and personal lives, and the turmoil that can ensue when those boundaries become blurred. Even with the forgotten lines, this is the strongest acting I’ve seen from Lente: she gave herself to the role in a way that made the show feel more like a pilot sharing her story than like an actress delivering lines. Grounded’s relevance to modern-day warfare and our relationship to reality is elegantly strung together and offers both a thought-provoking and heart-rending experience.