REVIEW: Emotional toll of drone wars hits home in Studio’s ‘Grounded.’

Lucy Ellison in 'Grounded' at Studio Theatre. (Photo by Igor Dmitry)

Lucy Ellison in ‘Grounded’ at Studio Theatre. (Photo by Igor Dmitry)

Sitting in an air-conditioned trailer, controlling an all-seeing military drone and pressing the button that kills enemies thousands of miles away is an especially ugly new way to conduct wars. War is always ugly, but there is something particularly unsettling about this sanitized modern method of warfare.

In “Grounded,” the one-woman show now at Studio Theatre, an F-16, hot-shot fighter pilot (Lucy Ellinson) loves the thrill and macho prestige of being a winged warrior, streaking through the sky. Unfortunately, she becomes pregnant after a night of drinking while on home leave. She can no longer be a strutting, fighter pilot and is reassigned to what she describes as the “Chair Force,” conducting war in Afghanistan by sitting in a windowless trailer in the Las Vegas desert where she pilots a lethal drone.

The thrill she once had as a freewheeling fighter pilot is over, and her self-esteem with it. Her battle zone is conducted on 12-hour shifts, at the end of which she drives across the desert to her husband and daughter in their suburban home. There is a disruptive unreality when warfare becomes an office job — destroying the enemy and noncombatant civilians during working hours and then going home to spend a quiet evening with the family.

Standing proudly in her flight suit, Ellinson, with legs apart, is in place in her box waiting as the audience files into the theater. She never leaves the restrictive confines of her cube as we are privy to her painful transition from proud top gun facing the dangers of the open sky to a weary desk pilot staring at a grey screen looking for targets to blow to smithereens. It is a provocative performance as Ellinson takes us through the erosion of her character’s loss of reality and self-esteem. She has no place to hide.

Even with a supportive husband and a daughter she loves, how can she be home for dinner, reading “My Little Pony” to her daughter after a day as a murderous drone pilot, controlling an $11 million killing machine? Ellinson’s painful deterioration in the narrow confines of her cube is uncomfortable to watch and her solid performance forces us to better understand the evening news about the growing prevalence of drone warfare. “It would be a different book, the Odyssey, if Odysseus came home every day, every single day. A very different book,” Ellinson states at one point.

That is the terrible truth from George Brant’s intelligently written “Grounded,” highlighted by Christopher Haydon’s minimalist, harsh direction. It is a truth that forces us to look beyond the nightly news to understand what it means to be a drone warrior. These men and women are the hidden snipers of the 21st-century kill. They destroy carefully selected targets — and sometimes innocent noncombatants — without ever getting their hands dirty. They may become a new generation of wounded warriors. Thousands of miles from the war zone in the unreality of an air-conditioned trailer, the ugliness of fighting a remote war may be far more damaging to them and the national emotional well-being.

Grounded” continues through June 29, 2014at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets $39-$49, available at 202-332-3300 and online here.

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