One thing warriors cannot afford is empathy. As soon as you start seeing the enemy as human beings not so different from the “good guys,” you may hesitate to pull the trigger. And you’ll be facing a moral quandary with no easy solution. That’s one idea that pops out of George Brant’s “Grounded,” a one-actor play that runs less that 90 minutes without an intermission. Although the piece has been produced elsewhere, the excellent production at the Unicorn Theatre is considered a “rolling world premiere,” meaning the Unicorn is one of three companies in the National New Play Network to have staged the work. The Unicorn show is directed by Cynthia Levin and showcases an exceptional performance by Carla Noack as a fighter pilot who, after an unexpected pregnancy, is reassigned to a base in Nevada where she pilots drones in the skies over Afghanistan. From a comfortable padded chair she operates the remote aircraft with a joystick and unleashes Hellfire missiles and other deadly ordnance on targets she sees on a black-and-white video screen.
Drone-pilot burnout has been written about extensively in recent years but it’s a mistake to categorize this play as topical. Neither would it be strictly accurate to call it antiwar. Brant has written what amounts to a philosophical meditation on the ethical and moral issues inherent in all wars, with which writers have been grappling for centuries in books as diverse as “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Red Badge of Courage” and “The Illiad.”
But Brant’s play stands out on two counts: He addresses the oddly detached nature of drone warfare, in which human targets are identified electronically from a distance of some 8,000 miles, and he filters the experience through a female sensibility.
As the Pilot, Noack expertly guides us through the emotional highs and lows of her career as a flier. She extolls the wonder and beauty of the flying up to the endless blue sky, the turn-on of hitting targets far below with her arsenal and the camaraderie she experiences with her fellow pilots, most of whom are male. After a relationship that begins as a one-night stand leads to motherhood and middle-class marriage, she’s re-assigned to pilot drones. Initially she takes it as a slap in the face. But she quickly comes to terms with the unique challenges and rewards of her new mission. But the Pilot seems to gradually lose her grip on reality. What’s really going on is that motherhood has given her a sense of empathy. And that leaves her in a place where she can no longer blindly follow orders. Noack deftly negotiates the play’s compact, intricate structure as she brings the viewer along on the Pilot’s emotional roller coaster. Noack has always been a competent performer but her work in this show is extraordinary. Much of Brant’s writing is intensely visual, allowing us to appreciate the extreme spatial dynamics involved in killing enemies from the air. Vast distances and desert vistas form before our eyes. The Pilot’s view from the literal cockpit and its drone equivalent are as vivid as they would be in a film. Levin’s direction is unfussy, allowing the words and the actress to do their work. Gary Mosby’s scenic design contributes a round stage with an inner revolving turntable and two walkways extending to opposite sides of the intimate Jerome Stage. Alex Perry’s lighting design plays a crucial role, as do Douglas Macur’s projections and a sound design credited to Greg Mackender and Michael Heuer. Costumer Shannon Smith-Regnier contributes a realistic olive flight suit and combat boots.
At certain moments, production assistant Chioma Anyanwu, also wearing a flight suit, silently brings chairs and other props to the stage and later removes them. But the show belongs to Noack, in her first one-actor play. She holds the stage with laser-like focus.
“Grounded” is Brant’s first play to be produced in Kansas City. Based on the quality of this script, we can only hope that we see more of his work.
“Grounded” runs through Feb. 9 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. For more information, call 816-531-7529 or go to UnicornTheatre.org.