Grounded, a one-woman play by George Brant, opens with a nameless fighter pilot (Kerry Cahill) exhilarated by the power and speed she experiences flying an F-16 jet. Her opening monologue resembles an epic Greek poem glorifing war.
"This was who I was now — who I'd become through sweat and brains and guts. This is me. It's more than a suit. It's the speed. It's the G-force pressing you back as you tear the sky. It's the ride. My Tiger. My gal who cradles me, lifts me up. It's more. It's the respect. It's the danger. It's more. It's you are the blue. You are alone in the vastness and you are the blue astronauts ..."
Her million-dollar Air Force training taught her to launch missiles and be miles away before they hit the target. It is easy to put the destruction out of mind.
Cahill gives a riveting solo performance, demonstrating how quickly that bravado ends when she is reassigned to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), a drone, while seated at a desk in front of a computer screen. She calls her new post the "Chair Force." With the "threat of death" eliminated, the pilot should feel carefree, but instead she becomes increasingly uneasy while stalking her targets for hours on end. Presented by Southern Rep in Loyola University's appropriately named Lower Depths Theatre, the work draws the audience with her as she emotionally spirals down into the abyss.
"The screen becomes your world," she says.
The pilot, a new mother and wife, returns to her Nevada home each night, the two sides of her life in stark contrast. The military forbids sharing details of her work with her husband, a blackjack dealer in a casino.
Cahill's film credits include Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Free State of Jones, but she's got a personal connection to the content in Grounded. She grew up an army brat in small towns in Montana, Oregon and Texas and is a national spokeswoman for AMVETS, a national veterans service organization. She is familiar with the literal and emotional landscape of military life and is capable of embodying the degeneration of a pilot no longer able to compartmentalize her work. Through 80 intense and uninterrupted minutes, she shows the strain of switching from cold-hearted warrior to emotionally available wife and mother. Trudging from home to the base and back, she becomes increasingly angry and withdrawn.
Grounded is not easy to watch, because the audience comes to experience the missions' predatory nature, not just the warrior's bravery. On a bare stage, a metal frame symbolizes both a plane and a doorway, leaving the pilot alone to confront her actions. She begins to fuse her targets in the desert with her loved ones in the Nevada suburb.
Directed by Larissa Lury, Grounded is a compelling, important and uncomfortable work that leaves the audience searching for answers.