BOTTOM LINE: A simple, powerful play featuring an amazing performance by Hannah Cabell.
If every play I see this year is as strong and effective as Grounded, then 2014 is going to make me one happy little reviewer.
Presented by Page 73, Grounded is the searing account of one woman’s psychological deterioration during her participation in the military's controversial drone project.The play features a tour-de-force turn by Hannah Cabell in what will surely be remembered as one of the best performances of the year. Yes, I know it's still January. I stand by my conviction.
Founded in 1997, Page 73 Productions is a non-profit theater that offers exposure to up-and-coming playwrights.Past productions have included Sixty Miles to Silver Lake by Dan LeFranc, 1001 by Jason Grote, and Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue by Quiara Alegría Hudes (a 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist, so there).Playwright George Brant has already been produced internationally at theaters such as Trinity Repertory Company, City Theatre, and London’s Gate Theatre. Grounded has already been seen at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, San Francisco Playhouse and Tucson’s Borderlands Theater, but this production marks the play and playwright’s New York premiere.
Grounded unspools the story of a fighter pilot (Hannah Cabell) whose days in the sky -- “the blue,” as she lovingly calls it -- are cut off by an unplanned pregnancy.After a few years of civilian life, the pilot, anxious to return to “the blue” is instead assigned to the drone program.“The blue” becomes grey as the pilot spends twelve hours a day in a windowless trailer in the Nevada desert staring at a battlefield half a world away.When the pilot does get the opportunity to see “action” in the field, her character and the play take an unsettling turn.
Brant’s simple, unsparing text puts the pilot and the audience in the heat of the story.It’s a cliché to say that a play puts you on the edge of your seat, but that is exactly what Grounded does.Through an unflinching 70 minutes, the audience hinges on every word.As staged by Ken Rus Schmoll, Cabell’s pilot stands before the audience, fixed to a single spot, as her story hemmorhages from her.Never have I seen a production that has had so much faith in the power of its words.Through the production and Cabell’s effective performance the audience feels every moment, every lurch, every shift. Her world, her family, the blue, the grey, it all becomes our world, her stakes become our stakes. When the pilot's psychological bearings begin to deteriorate, the audience cannot help but feel a queesy fascination.
Not enough can be said about Hannah Cabell's performance, engaging in its subtlety.Watching Cabell reminded me of a lesson once imparted to me by an acting teacher: “There are those that demand power, and those that command it.”Cabell commands absolute power in her performance.With barely any movement, with just her face, her voice and her soul, she brings the audience into the skin of her character.The audience feels her triumphs and her agonies; they cling to Cabell even as her humanity slips away.Like I said before, I cannot imagine any performance this year will come close to matching Cabell’s raw, focused authority.
The design of the show adds shrewd support to the play’s overall punch.Sets and costumes by Arnulfo Maldonado, lighting by Garin Marschall and sound by Jane Shaw are effective and unfussy.The brilliant creative team colors the play in just the right way, keeping the focus on the character and the story.
Grounded is not a play to be missed.It is a chance to see masterful work by a powerful actress and a rising playwright.
(Grounded plays at Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street, through February 1, 2014. Performances are Mondays through Wednesdays at 7:30PM and Thursdays through Saturdays at 8PM.Tickets are $15-$35, available at 866-811-4111 or at page73.org/tickets.)