‘Grounded’ scores direct hit with soaring performance and gripping story

Anne Siegel, Contributing writer

A large, half-opened parachute dominates the background of the set for Grounded, which opened at the Milwaukee Rep’s intimate Stiemke Studio on Feb. 24. Behind and in front of it are a number of large monitors. The floor is an expertly crafted — and authentic-looking — series of small sand dunes etched with tracks made by military vehicles.

The lights go up on a young fresh-scrubbed woman with her blonde hair in a ponytail. She’s wearing a military flight suit and stands “at ease.”

She speaks directly to the audience about her job as an F-16 fighter pilot.

The pilot (who’s unnamed) lovingly describes her Tiger — her fighter jet: “She’s my gal, she lifts me up,” she says. And she talks with pride of the “guts” that earned her the right to fly fighter jets and to be part of the lifestyle that comes with that, including “kicking one back with the boys” after work.

On leave, she returns to the small, working-class town in Wyoming where she was raised. It’s not a coincidence that playwright George Brant set her there, in “Big Sky Country,” where the pilot was surrounded by the blue sky in which she would some day soar.

Brant’s taut, gripping drama focuses on the impact of war. In 75 minutes, actor Jessie Fisher, under the direction of Laura Braza, scores a direct hit as she walks the audience through her toughest assignment yet.

The pilot returned pregnant from her last leave. She’s nervous about telling her guy (via Skype), but he’s thrilled. She tries to be thrilled, too. But this is not what she had planned.

They get married and have a baby girl.

Upon returning to the military, she’s assigned to a windowless trailer on a bleak military base in the heart of the Nevada desert, where pilots remotely fly drones on battlefields in Afghanistan, Iran and other war zones in the Mideast.

The pilot stares at a gray screen, searching for the enemy in an effort to protect ground troops in the area. One of the most intense scenes is when she’s forced by her superiors to “hover” over U.S. soldiers who were injured in a bomb blast.

The strong images that the pilot sees on the screen are replicated on the set’s monitors and the parachute: images of cars being blown up by bombs dropped from the drones and body parts hurled aloft by the blast.

Over time, the lines between the pilot’s days in the sunless trailer and her nights at home with her husband and child begin to blur. At first, she tries to pump herself up by saying she can fight a war every day and then drive home, kiss her daughter on the forehead and make love to her husband every night.

But the ability to leave her work at the door and to re-engage fully with her family at home diminishes over time. The juggling of two worlds makes her less emotionally grounded. Tensions arise between her and her husband.

The issues examined by Grounded are keenly relevant. The play touches on the ethics and costs of drone warfare as well as the personal toll of staring at screens all day.

There are moments of laughter woven among the sobering insights. The pilot is perplexed by her baby daughter’s love for pink-colored ponies. There are dozens of them scattered around the child’s room. The pilot and her husband try to steer her toward airplanes, without any success.

It takes a lot of skill and energy for one actor to transfix an audience for more than an hour, and Fisher has both. Although she’s a new face to Milwaukee audiences, she’s familiar to those in both Chicago and New York. Among her credentials is the female lead in the Broadway musical Once.

Fisher is supported by superb stagecraft that’s used in a way that underscores rather than distracts from her bravura performance.

“Grounded” opened continues through April 2 at the Milwaukee Repertory’s Stiemke Studio. For tickets, visit www.MilwaukeeRep.com or phone 414-290-5340.