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Milwaukee Rep's 'Grounded' Humanizes Technological Warfare

Feb. 28, 2017
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Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s staging of George Brant’s Grounded is an ambitious and timely production featuring a gripping one-woman performance from Jessie Fisher as a grounded U.S. fighter pilot operating drones from a trailer in Nevada. Issues tackled range from the human impact of technological advances in modern warfare (some of them disturbingly akin to the changes society faces because of video game violence) to the extreme psychological stressors military personnel encounter in attempting to balance life and war. 

Scott Davis’ spare set includes sand, a lone chair, a parachute used for video projection and—most importantly—a large bank of screens allowing the audience a window into what the Pilot (Fisher) spends 12 hours a day, seven days a week seeing: a drone’s “gray putty” digital view of the Iraqi dessert. Medved’s work, along with Hillary Leben’s video and projection designs, aptly suggest the Pilot’s world without detracting from our focus on what she’s saying. 

Brant’s script is brilliant for its understated poetic elements, directness in storytelling and elegantly conceived character arc. When we meet the Pilot, she is an ace combat flyer who loves her work, partly for the prestige and camaraderie it affords her, but above all else, for the connection it gives her to “the blue”—the sheer joy of flight. When an unexpected pregnancy grounds her and places her in the drone-operating “chair force,” she strives mightily to reconcile the gift of being able to go home to her young family each night with the crushing disappointment of being stripped of her wings. Although she comes to realize the tremendous power of being this century’s “top shit” combat specialist, the responsibility of being a godlike “eye in the sky”—both taking life and finding herself unable to protect it—takes its toll on her sanity. The Pilot’s personal climax is breathtaking. 

Under Laura Braza’s direction, Fisher’s performance is consistently intense yet varied in emotional impact. Eschewing all-too-common stereotypes of female members of the military, she displays a compelling blend of toughness and vulnerability; her vocal and expressive variety ensure rapt focus throughout. Fisher is particularly compelling in a scene in which the Pilot recalls visiting the mall with her small daughter and, observing the security cameras in J.C. Penney, contemplates how all aspects of human life are observed by someone somewhere: The watcher is also watched, a point which only gains import as the story progresses to its hard-hitting conclusion. 

Through April 2 at the Rep’s Stiemke Studio, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets, call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com

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