By David Brush
The balance between home and work life is difficult enough – but when you are a hotshot F-16 top gun pilot, the stakes are a good deal higher. In the Human Race’s dynamic opener, Grounded (by Cleveland-based playwright George Brant), an unexpected pregnancy stalls The Pilot’s flying career when she decides to re-up and get back to the sky again; but things do not go exactly to plan. “The Pilot” will now man targeted drones much to her dismay – the sky blue replaced by screens of silent gray. Maggie Lou Rader’s performance as “The Pilot” is a tour de force in what is nothing short of a master class in character embodiment. (Previously, Rader was thrilling in the last season’s The Revolutionists as Marie Antoinette.)
Grounded marks the Human Race directorial debut of the organization’s new Artistic Director Emily N. Wells and showcases the kind of thrilling work she plans to deliver at the helm. The pace is remarkable – the staging is genius – and the plot trajectory lands and circles back in smart and innovative ways. The team here has spent time with Dayton’s own National Museum of the United States Air Force and the research shows. Every nuance feels true and painfully raw in the way only great scripts can. But it is Rader whose work elevates the already strong material to nearly every emotional climax.
The stalwart and steady production team at the Loft does not disappoint as per usual. D. Tristan Cupp and Jeff Heater’s beautiful and simple scenic work provides the perfect backdrop for John Rensel’s stunning light design and Jay Brunner’s gorgeous and frenzied soundscape–all brilliantly providing an ambience that allows Rader and the text to move and stay in the foreground. If there is another ‘character’ on stage, it is Lianne Arnold’s complex and detailed projection design. I have rarely seen such strong projections play such a central role in storytelling as exists here. The audience in the Loft are very literally in the cockpit, on dark desert roads and in the intimate spaces of a family in turmoil. The distance between audience and play has all but vanished.
Perhaps most searing is watching how Wells and Rader use the text to take audiences deep into the nature of modern warfare, the changing role of the fighter pilot and the slow burn of PTSD among veterans and current personnel alike. The final 20 minutes of the piece are as wrenching as any war drama has ever been. Grounded is a heavy and edge-of-your-seat evening of theater. If this is how the Human Race opens their new season, I can only imagine what’s to come.
Tickets and performance information for “Grounded” are available at www.humanracetheatre.org or by calling Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630, and at the Schuster Center box office. Performances continue through September 25.