One-actor plays are the theatrical equivalent of compositional etudes — exercises to show one’s mastery of a form. It’s like a juggling act: “See what I can do!” That doesn’t make them a bad thing (I enjoy juggling acts and etudes), but it does make for an insular art form.
In Second Thought Theatre‘s one-actor play Grounded, Jenny Ledel is the one tasked with carrying all the weight of the show, and she does so compellingly, holding our attention for 80 minutes. (That’s a greater accomplishment than it may sound.) Ledel plays an American fighter pilot (no name, of course — this is a play of ideas, not real people) who, after getting pregnant and having a daughter, gets reassigned from a combat zone to a base outside of Las Vegas. It’s not a demotion, she’s assured, but the new normal. She’s still a fighter pilot, only instead of sitting in a cockpit with a bullion-dollar bird under her, she’ll be in a control room, operating drones. Her life won’t be in danger, just her targets. She’ll get the job done with cold-blooded efficiency.
Just how cold-blooded, she isn’t prepared for.
I always tend to bristle a bit at “message” plays that manipulate a character to serve an idea. The pilot, even though female, seems like a caricature of a macho, Stallone-and-Schwarzenegger-loving rah-rah warmonger who is only alive when she’s flyin’ jets. So her hesitance to end the pregnancy following a one-night stand, and to stay away from combat for several years, rings false — a gimmick to be employed for retraining her and explaining her crisis later. (It’s a different thing to kill terrorists when you don’t have kids of your own to worry about.) Her mental-emotional deterioration isn’t quite believable, either. But hey, the point of the play is more to make a “statement” about the immorality of drone programs than it is to develop a character and a storyline. It’s intent isn’t to move audiences, but to have them nod knowingly, as if, rather than applause at the end, the playwright would prefer that you compose a strongly-worded letter to your congressman.
It’s not a comfortable fit, despite Ledel’s efforts. The multimedia elements also serve the production, and parts of the script are interesting and clever. (Calling drone work “The Chair Force” might not be original, but it’s amusing and evocative.) But nothing about Grounded grabs you emotionally or resonates as truthful. If you just want a screed about drone programs, you’d be better off listening to a TEDTalk.
Through Feb. 4.