Review by Kathleen Campion
“The U.S. Keeps Killing Americans in Drone Strikes, Mostly by Accident” Washington Post headline, April 24, 2015
“Drone Strikes Reveal Uncomfortable Truth: U.S. Is Often Unsure About Who Will Die” New York Times headline, April 24, 2015
These actual news headlines could have been, in the darkest sense, written in the Playbill of GROUNDED now at the Public Theater. The intense 85-minute narrative is about a young woman entangled in several struggles, one of them the morality of long-distance, anonymous killing.
Anne Hathaway’s audacious performance, one woman alone on a stage, playing all the parts—building her character from swaggering fighter pilot to a distraught, disoriented victim—is intense and relentless.
Hathaway is at her most endearing as she struts through the opening scenes in her flight suit—a fighter pilot fresh from sorties in Iraq. She is arrogance, muscle and jargon—all pilot, no fluff. Her drawl is just right; her identity is one with “the tiger” (her jet); her earnest regard for power and flight define her.
She is all Air Force, enjoying leave, knowing it is short-lived and that she will soon return to her real life in “the Blue.” Enter Eric, the man who runs a gauntlet of other pilots to ‘get to her’ and kisses her in the parking lot. Back to work, she is funny and irreverent as she discovers her pregnancy and the universal female quandary sets in. George Brant’s script is rich with turning points most women have confronted; it is never heavyhanded. The audience reacts with recognition, sometimes even knowing sighs.
At any rate, she decides to have the life-changing baby and husband that ‘ground’ her, and she goes to work flying drones from a trailer in the desert outside Las Vegas. Director Julie Taymor with Elliot Goldenthal’s music and sound, Riccardo Hernandez’s sets, Christopher Akerlind’s lighting and Peter Nigrini’s projection put up an intriguing co-mingling of high technology and primitive symbolism: drone screen-robotics juxtaposed with pyramids, noisy Vegas hoopla with roadside crosses. There are wonderful audio touchstones as well: Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas” and ACDC tunes fading in and out as she drives long empty desert roads…only to get to the trailer and surveil others driving long, empty desert roads.
Taymor owns the spectacle. In GROUNDED, the spectacle is small and delicate and yet powerful. Going in, the “critical mass” of talent and accomplishment that Julie Taymor and Anne Hathaway represent put expectations on a monumental scale.
Here’s the thing: Hathaway has us in the palm of her hand while she’s creating this amazing young woman about to confront her demons. We travel that IED infested road with her, but, when she comes apart, popping rivets and melting down, we are sorry for her, we understand her, but the emotional payoff is limp.
Perhaps it cuts too close to the bone. Perhaps we are unwilling to feel for her as she and Taymor and Brant force us to confront our complicity in the moral morass of “eye-in-the-sky” killing. It’s wonderful writing, and technically wonderful acting…but we are deflated.
Hathaway earned her curtain calls, to be sure. But it was a quiet, “what are we to make of that” house that exited.
Grounded – By George Brant; directed by Julie Taymor
WITH: Anne Hathaway
Original music and soundscapes by Elliot Goldenthal; scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez; lighting by Christopher Akerlind; sound by Will Pickens; projection design Peter Nigrini; electronic music by Richard Martinez; production stage manager Evangeline Rose Whitlock. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, Manhattan; (212) 967-7555. Through May 24. Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission.