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Grounded: Elizabeth Bunch Is Magnificent in the Role of Virtual Pilot

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‘You are the blue,” avows the ballsy unnamed female fighter pilot, called The Pilot (Elizabeth Bunch), in George Brant’s disquieting, timely “one-man” 85-minute show Grounded at the Alley.

The Pilot is an Air Force top gun, the best of the best in sweat, brains and guts. She lives for the sky, alone and all-powerful when commanding Tiger, her beloved F-16, while she delivers death and destruction to the enemy below. Arrogant and full of pride, she struts in her flight suit, cock of the walk among the guys, her boys. “I never wanted to take it off,” she boasts of her zippered olive uniform. “This was who I was now, who I’d become…this is me.”

She’s immensely pleased with herself, pleased with her power, her aura of achievement. “Most guys don’t like what I do. Feel they’re less of a guy around me. I take the guy spot, and they don’t know where they belong.”

With a stratospheric level of testosterone, she’s butch and sexy, the most modern of women. Taut and sleek, her haired knotted into a tight bun to fit under her helmet, she is definitely no “hair tosser.”

Home on leave at a bar in big-sky Wyoming, she meets small-town Eric, who bravely walks the gauntlet through her drunken cohorts to introduce himself. He’s not intimidated by her glow, not even threatened — he’s turned on. After a three-day sex binge (once with her flight suit on), she falls out of the sky hard. But not hard enough to forget her job. Back in her killing machine over Iraq, something’s wrong, she’s sick and barely makes a landing before throwing up. Oh, no, she smirks at us knowingly. She’s not blue anymore, she’s pink! As in pregnant. Now it’s a desk job, a pilot’s nightmare.

She welcomes motherhood with all the steely determination that once made her unique in the air. She marries Eric and has her baby girl, “Sam.” Another sly wink at us when she notices Sam’s devilish glint. “She’s gonna be a problem. Good.”

But the sky beckons seductively as it always will to The Pilot. “Like some ’50s movie,” she confesses with wry warmth, “I’ve got my little woman at home, know who I’m fighting for. All that true corn, true cheese.”

But times have changed. The F-16 is a dinosaur of the air. Priorities, too, have changed in the constant, vigilant war against terrorism. Lumbering giants aren’t needed, too much risk for servicemen, too much collateral damage on the ground. Now is the time for UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). It is the era of the drone. These unblinking eyes in the sky with their Gorgon stare can fly for 40 hours at a stretch and be completely controlled from overseas. Fully loaded with Hellfire missiles and high-tech surveillance gadgetry, these predators soar over the battlefield, searching, forever searching, for targets. Nobody gets hurt, except those “guilty” on the ground who are instantly obliterated. On the thermal screen, their rosy life-force fades to ashy gray. They become the desert. No fuss, no bother.

Our Pilot has lost her smugness. She’s now in the “chair force,” manning a drone. She’s lost her color. 12 hours, seven days a week, she sits in a Naugahyde Barcalounger in an air-conditioned, windowless trailer in the hot desert outside Las Vegas. She stills flies, but it’s a game console – she’s a virtual pilot. Her once-proud flight suit, her second skin, is a mockery.

She rationalizes the compensations for losing her sky time: She can go home each day after work, see her daughter grow up, kiss her husband good night every night. What dawns on us, of course, obliquely through Brant’s combo of hi-def reality and strikingly phrased raw description, is the dehumanization taking place. The Pilot’s mind-numbing routine – constantly staring at that sand-colored TV monitor, her drive through the desert to get to work, her routine at home (Sam’s usually asleep, Eric works nights at a casino), the meaningless sex when they are together – slowly takes a toll. Brant implies, not so subtly, that post-traumatic stress syndrome is no longer limited to the battlefield. Even soldiers halfway around the world, those who push the buttons to launch the missiles, will eventually suffer as much. Psychic damage comes fast and true. Peacefully being home every night after a day of war is no great trade-off. With a light brush of icy humor, she knows that the Trojan War would have been different had Odysseus been able to see Penelope every night after a daytime of fighting.

Though she flies above it all, the “lingering” of the drone — the flybys to assess damage after the carnage is through — undoes The Pilot. This is when she realizes the real damage she is doing: the slow dying of the maimed; the body parts flying up and away; the moment when everything returns to sand, when blood goes gray. The change may be a trifle too quick dramatically, but Bunch expertly pilots around it, as she does throughout this exceptional performance. This is her best role in years, and she is magnificent. Salty and steamy, ready and randy for action, she never loses her charm even when gritty. As the stress overcomes her, she seems to turn gray, too.

Unlike the Julie Taymor off-Broadway production that starred Anne Hathaway, which was swamped under a tsunami of distracting projections and a stageful of sand, director Jackson Gay (the Alley’s Red; Other Desert Cities; August: Osage County) keeps Brant simple and much more in our imagination. The playwright doesn’t specify the design except that it should “reinforce the Pilot’s mental landscape and contribute a growing sense of unease,” so it’s up to the director and her team to supply the soar and the fall. They do this with wings wide spread. A movable platform, with its one metal chair, is the solitary set, placed against a curved stone wall upon which are projected very simple designs: a highway through the desert, the grid of a video monitor, abstract color washes. Takeshi Kata (sets), Paul Whitaker (lights), Broken Chord (sound and music), Nicholas Hussong (projections) and Erica Griese (costume) are masters of minimal. We supply everything else.

Well, if we don’t, the ace Bunch certainly does. She’s our conscience, as she talks to us squarely, confesses, preens, seduces, boasts, then crumbles to become frighteningly all-too human. The bad guys, the “guilty,” may be dead in the desert, but their blood is no less red. She’s seen the color draining into the sand. And the faces, rendered gray and ghostly in hi-res pixels, aren’t they recognizable? Isn’t that child embracing the evil terrorist leader, Sam? Bunch thinks so. She makes us think so, too. She is fiery and terrifying, like a prophet from the Bible, or some honest, noble, unnamed serviceman ripped from today’s headlines.

Through April 17. Alley Theatre, 501 Texas. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org.

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