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Taking flight 

Grounded looks at a pilot's tour of duty in the chair force

Little more than a century has elapsed since the dream of powered human flight became a reality, barely a dot on the timeline of history. Yet as travelers and pilots, we regard flight as a birthright, a capability we were born with. In George Brant's Grounded at Studio 1212, we encounter an articulate eagle who undergoes the experience of having her wings cut off.

click to enlarge Grounded’s pilot.
  • Grounded’s pilot.

Flying her F-16 for the Air Force, dropping her Sidewinder and Maverick missiles on "Saddam's dipshit army," The Pilot feels invincible riding her Tiger in the sky, turning the minarets that punctuate the desert back into desert. She doesn't hesitate to show us her arrogant, predatory pride, which begins with her flight uniform. She rocks. She rules.

In Brant's taut, jagged script, the speedy Mamet-like spasms of The Pilot's monologue are laid out like free verse on the page. We're just hitting the 200-word mark when she's home on leave at a pilot bar in Wyoming, letting her defenses down for Eric, a local who manages a hardware store. The baggage he saddles her with before she returns to combat in Iraq swells into a baby bump, a signal to military brass that our Pilot must be grounded.

The plot thickens years after marriage and motherhood, when The Pilot acts on her itch to return to her Tiger and her beloved blue. Instead, the Air Force deploys her to a windowless bunker outside Las Vegas, where she learns to fly drones. With just a 1.2-second lapse between pressing her button and missile launch, she is soon firing missiles on verified enemy targets in Afghanistan, seen on a monitor she stares at for hours and hours at a time. She despises this ignominious demotion to the "chair force," but as her commander predicts, it's the wave of the future.

You might expect Brant to target the dehumanized brutality of drone warfare, yet heaps of ammunition aren't forthcoming from a protagonist entrusted with piloting the $11 million devices all day long. But this is a one-woman show, so the parallel between this hero's job and generations of pimply Americans raised on bloodthirsty videogames is never mentioned. We get a glimpse of what's really on the playwright's mind when we hear that Eric, supportively joining his wife in Vegas, lands a job dealing blackjack.

Like the convoys under Air Force protection in Afghanistan and like the bad guys planting roadside landmines in the middle of the night, Eric is constantly under surveillance. Even the Pilot in her top-secret battle station is constantly scrutinized by the unblinking eye of a camera. A weird kind of desert kinship is established between The Pilot at Creech Air Force Base, her Afghani targets, and her husband, the gambling predator — who works at the pyramid-shaped Luxor Hotel in Vegas, to underscore the point.

All of this happens as The Pilot dispels the notion that sitting in an office chair, staring at a monitor, and hunting down insurgents from nine time zones away is a dispassionate, stress-free job. With Veterans Day upcoming as my wife Sue and I watched this FroShow production last Saturday, I found Grounded keenly mindful of the stresses and sacrifices our servicemen and women endure at stations around the globe.

FroShow Productions founder Caroline Renfro zigzags through this richly textured script so deftly that it was surprising to realize that barely 62 minutes had elapsed when she was done. All of The Pilot's dimensions as demigod, stud, and mom come through as Renfro does nothing to tarnish the accolade I handed out to her when I included her among Charlotte's top three actresses for 2014. She gets dynamic direction from Glynnis O'Donoghue, with an effective blackout separating the main action from the emotional in-your-face coda.

All of the aspects that are likely to remind you of 1984 and A Few Good Men come through vividly. Brant and Renfro convincingly nail the special stresses that set stateside drone piloting apart. You may be inhabiting a virtual world in the "chair force," but you're shuttling back and forth from the war to your family every day. More to the point, when The Pilot's missiles were hitting their targets in Iraq, her F-16 was long gone by the time the explosions went off miles below. Drones hover, and their multiple eyes maintain their gaze with telescopic intimacy. Confirming your strike after a 1.2-second delay, you can see body parts flying onscreen as you cheer.

Grounded leaves you thinking after its hour is done. The wondrous technology that exposes the wrongdoings of rogue cops and babysitters also has a serious downside.

Three other flightless birds are waddling onstage this week as Marc Acito's Birds of a Feather celebrates a family of chinstrap penguins at Spirit Square in a cutesy Queen City Theatre Company production at Spirit Square. These are the notorious Roy and Silo of the Central Park Zoo, two males who famously began parenting a daughter in 1998 while she was still in the egg. When Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell turned their story into an award-winning children's book, And Tango Makes Three, they learned what it means to legitimize same-sex unions in the Land of the Free.

Queen City Theatre Company’s Birds of a Feather. (Photo credit: George Hendricks)
  • Queen City Theatre Company’s Birds of a Feather. (Photo credit: George Hendricks)

Many, many libraries and school districts disgraced and embarrassed themselves by banning the book. For three years in a row, beginning in 2009, Tango topped the American Library Association's list of most-challenged books.

So, the absurd maelstrom is a natural for the stage, where audiences will readily accept the concept of two human actors waddling around as the trailblazing Silo and Roy. In some ways, Acito goes further than the kids' book in personalizing the couple. As Roy, the expansive Kristian Wedolowski can spread his flippers and be a showtune-loving, nurturing extrovert, while the pert Stephen Seay can be stiffly demure and publicity-shy as Silo. Closeted, perhaps.

Surrounding them, we expect the zookeepers, the journalists, and the book authors who catapulted Roy and Silo to fame, juxtaposed with the idiots who were outraged by all they stood for. This wouldn't be the first children's theatre piece with animals that were more sensible and mature than humans.

To some extent, Acito follows this path, but mostly, he goes far astray. Besotted by some kind of New York state of mind, he insists on telling the saga of Pale Male (Wedolowski) and Lola (Seay), two red-tailed hawks who nested on top of a Fifth Avenue apartment, across the street from Central Park, becoming a prime attraction for birdwatchers. Their controversy occurs in late 2004, when their nest was removed by the building co-op, rousing the ire of the Audubon Society, birders, and Mary Tyler Moore.

This part of the comedy, in which CNN correspondent Paula Zahn and her husband figure prominently, was excruciatingly boring and irrelevant for me. These silly bickering humans only succeeded in sucking time away from the yahoos who hated Silo and Roy. We hear from just one. As for the hawks, Lola's jealousy over Pale Male's previous mates siphons more attention.

With stage direction by Glenn Griffin and set design by Wedolowski and Tim Baxter-Ferguson, the production at Duke Energy Theater is charmingly mounted. Robbie Jaeger, chiefly as a Birder, and Karen Christenson, most significantly as the Zookeeper, soldier on through multiple roles and scenes, most of them as tiresome as the hawks. Jaeger's costume designs count as another big plus.

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