Westport Country Playhouse
“Grounded,” George Brant’s one person play, is currently being given an extremely intense and riveting production at Westport Country Playhouse. The play concerns a woman (identified in the program as “The Pilot”) who loves to be flying planes in the Air Force and how she eventually finds herself in charge of operating a drone. This pilot is played by a magnificent actress named Elizabeth Stahlmann, who delivers a committed and stirring performance during the play’s ninety minute running time (there is no intermission).
Indeed, Stahlmann creates an entire world onstage in the show, just through her words and with only a single chair on the otherwise bare stage. “Grounded” was previously presented to strong reviews Off-Broadway (with Anne Hathaway in the lead) but it is difficult to imagine anyone embodying this role more completely than Stahlmann does. It must be said that “Grounded” is not always the easiest play to sit through (due to some of the content), but Westport Country Playhouse’s striking and mesmerizing production, which is directed sensationally by Liz Diamond, makes this play essential viewing.
“Grounded” begins with Elizabeth Stahmann talking about how much she loves the “blue” in the sky when she is piloting planes. It is what this character lives for. During the course of the show, Stahmann also talks about falling in love and getting married and eventually having a baby. It is only after her maternity leave that she returns to her job and finds that she is not only not going to be flying planes anymore, but that she will be operating a drone seated at a desk, which she refers to as the “Chair Force.”
“Grounded” works so effectively, partly because the main character is so appealing and has such a wonderful sense of humor. Also, since she is the only person onstage, we see everything through her eyes, including, most strikingly, the small gray screen she stares at for twelve hours a day, as she monitors the drone. Thanks to the brilliant projection design by Yana Birykova, which is projected against set designer Riccardo Hernandez’s stark metal wall, located just behind the main character, one is always aware of what Elizabeth Stahlmann is looking at, at any given time. I would hate to give any more away of the plot, but suffice it is to say that that audience takes this emotional and jolting ride with this character right to the conclusion.
It cannot be underestimated what a great job Elizabeth Stahlmann does, playing this woman. Stahlmann draws the audience in with an almost vice-like grip that refuses to let go. Also having an important impact in the play is the military suit (designed by Jennifer Moeller) that the character wears throughout the show. This suit represents this character’s very identity as a pilot, but it is also used as a kind of armor, so to speak, when she is relating to her husband and child. Playwright George Brant pulls no punches in this play, as one sees the effect the job eventually has on this character, and Stahlmann is absolutely stunning in everything she does.
Director Liz Diamond stages this play with an almost laser-like precision and it is pretty much impossible to look away from the stage. Everything about this show is superbly wrought, including Solomon Weisbard’s incisive lighting and the amazing sound design by Kate Marvin. Be warned, though: “Grounded” at Westport Country Playhouse is a steely and brilliant play and production, but also a show that you may have to decompress from by the time it ends. “Grounded” truly takes one into another time and place and the total effect is both visceral and quite unlike anything I have ever experienced in a theater before.
“Grounded” continues performance at Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, CT through July 29, 2017. For tickets, please visit www.westportplayhouse.org or call the box office at 203-227-4177.
Photo: Elizabeth Stahlmann
Photo by Peter Chenot