The Oscar winner impresses in a fighter pilot solo drama that doesn't quite take flight

By Jeff Labrecque
Updated April 26, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
Joan Marcus

On April 23, the United States government announced that a military drone strike against terrorist suspects in Pakistan had accidentally killed two Western hostages—in addition to its intended targets. Drones—or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles—are the new battlefield equalizer, but one with profound and unprecedented moral implications. In an eerie art-imitates-life coincidence, that is also the backdrop for Grounded, a one-woman show starring Anne Hathaway at The Public Theater through May 24.

The Oscar-winning actress plays a fierce, Wyoming-bred F-16 fighter pilot, a knight of the vast blue wonder who is reassigned to the “Chair Force” to remote-fly deadly Reaper drones in the Middle East while staring at a grainy, grey video screen a few miles outside of Las Vegas. An unplanned pregnancy cost her a place in the cockpit, and when she suits back up after marrying an understanding beau and having the baby, she’s tasked with the videogame-like predatory strikes that force her to redefine her warrior mentality because there’s no risk—no actual combat—8,000 miles away from where her Sidewinders and Stingers will deliver their righteous vengeance.

For 85 minutes, Hathaway, clad mostly in her military flight suit, flies solo, building a character whose sense of reality is slowly slipping with the gradual adverse effects of a high-tech strain of PTSD. Armed with the clipped accent of Holly Hunter imitating Chuck Yeager, her character, the Pilot, is cocky and profane—a woman who legitimately feels castrated by her armchair assignment. Few actresses could muster the spectrum of conflicting emotions required during such a lengthy monologue, but the real challenge is revealing them even while the character doesn’t explicitly acknowledge them. It’s a delicate high-wire act that Hathaway navigates successfully.

The actress is greatly assisted by director Julie Taymor’s scenic-projection stagecraft that transforms a spare postage-stamp sized stage into the skies over Iraq, the roads outside Las Vegas, and the claustrophobic trailer where the Pilot rains Hellfires on the guilty. Rear-stage mirrors, tilted downward, have the ingenious effect of placing the Pilot in the middle of simultaneous action as videogame-like graphics and vivid light creations are projected and reflected around her.

But while Hathaway gets a dramatic workout and the clever production values are impressive, George Brant’s script is plagued by predictability—sapping the performance of its power. Even though drones are currently in the news—raising real-life questions about issues that Brant’s play directly addresses—the conundrum of UAVs and their impact on soldiers on both sides of a conflict aren’t as fresh or fertile in 2015, three years after the play initially debuted. Even for those who haven’t delved deeply into the political and technological issues, the play’s narrative dots are rather easy to connect. There are very few G-forces in Grounded, and even with a superstar at the controls, the audience experience never quite rises above cruising altitude. B-