The Drone Unknown: A former pilot gets a new assignment.
The Drone Unknown: A former pilot gets a new assignment.

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“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” an American officer—there’s some debate over which one—ordered at the Battle of Bunker Hill, lest undersupplied riflemen waste their precious powder on targets too far away to kill. Two hundred and thirty-nine years later, the weapons have changed, but not as drastically as the roles. Once the outgunned underdog, the United States is now the superior force shipping its soldiers overseas to fight the natives.

Only we don’t even have to ship them anymore.

In George Brant’s provocative solo drama Grounded, performed by the remarkable Ellen DeGeneres lookalike Lucy Ellinson, a fighter pilot returns from maternity leave to find herself reassigned to “the Chair Force,” remote-flying a Reaper drone in Afghan airspace from an air-conditioned trailer in Nevada. Introduced in 2007, these aircraft have a stamina their human operators can’t match, staying airborne for 40 hours at a stretch. Their pilots work in 12-hour shifts from 12 time zones away.

At first, only the unnamed pilot’s ego suffers. Flyers are the alphas of the military pack, and the revocation of that venerated status—and of the visceral joy of being “alone in the blue,” as she puts it, miles above the Earth—is a loss for which the more prosaic rewards of becoming a new mother (and wife) can only partially compensate. But eventually the days spent staring at a grayscale monitor, awaiting the order to press a button and end the life of some splotchy collection of pixels, begin to erode her psyche.

Notions of conscience and morality are a relatively recent upgrade to our species. But the notion of killing while being fully insulated against physical danger is entirely new. At the end of her shift, the pilot gets in her car, cranks up the AC/DC, and commutes home to her family. No happy few, no band of brothers (or sisters). Military camaraderie is replaced by the sense of working in a murderous call center. The pilot’s husband is a croupier in a Las Vegas casino, a job that offers more stimulation and human contact than she gets at work. He deprives people only of their money, and he can see their faces when he does.

Brant, the playwright, is an American, but this production comes from London’s Gate Theatre, which brought it to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. Set and costume designer Oliver Townsend puts Ellinson inside a flight suit (which she continues to wear for psychological reasons, though there’s no need for it on the ground) and then inside a transparent cube the size of a prison cell with a video-screen floor. Ellinson is already there as the audience files in. Sound and video designers Tom Gibbons and Benjamin Walden summon the heat and isolation of the desert and the electronic milieu of the head-up display through which the pilot regards her targets.

Brant’s script does an admirable job of animating the existential confusion of the pilot’s dilemma. And Ellinson is much more than just his vessel. She’s at least as dextrous and responsive as her imaginary drone, showing us the way her newly sedentary, family-oriented lifestyle chips away at her hard-won sense of distinction. She can’t take it out on her daughter yet, so she takes it out on her husband. Ellinson plays these subtle changes of demeanor masterfully, seeming to age a decade in the course of a little more than an hour.

She’s the ghost in the machine. She’s the bad line of code. She’s the embodiment of our 21st-century idea that we can wage war and never feel a thing. She never sees the whites of her enemies’ eyes, but she feels their blood on her hands.

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