A pilot. A mother. A wife. A spy. These are the pillars on which Grounded's lone protagonist attempts to rest her identity, only to find herself torn between a new era in warfare and the everyday routine of parenthood.
Premiering in 2013, American playwright George Brant's most well-known work takes the form of a one-woman monologue. Captivated by the freedom she finds flying her F-16, our unnamed protagonist finds herself on leave after several tours in Iraq. Drinks are poured. Good times are had. And she manages to catch the eye of a charming young man across the bar.
Fast forward a bit, and we find motherhood has clipped our pilot's wings in a way. Gone are the days she spent miles above the fray. Now our protagonist finds herself splitting her days between home life with her husband and child and locked away in a Nevada base piloting drones over the Middle East. Although thousands of miles separate our character from the front lines, war has become a part of everyday life.
"It's like you're sitting down at a bar and you're talking to this woman, and she just tells you her whole story. As the play moves on, the play becomes less past tense of her telling you 'This is what happened in the past. This is what I went through.' Everything becomes active, and you can't tell what's past and what's present," says J.P. McLaurin, director with Myrtle Beach-based Boots on the Ground Theater.
From a directorial standpoint, McLaurin has worked to strip away any ego and unnecessary theatricality that may come with such a production and instead focus on the story of one woman — played by Boots on the Ground founding member Mikayla Goetz. As McLaurin points out, the only true separation between tracking military combatants and caring for her child comes with the protagonist's commute home. In that brief time, the struggle to readjust becomes daunting.
"She's watching this screen for 12 hours a day, then she drives home and gets to tuck her kid into bed and go to sleep with her husband. Then she wakes up in the morning to do it all over again," says McLaurin. "So the lines between that world at home and the world she experiences in the trailer monitoring this high-profile target, they begin to blur."
In creating a show that draws the audience in — both physically and mentally — McLaurin looks for Grounded to serve as a catalyst for healthy discussion for those with firsthand experience in the military. That is why the theater company has partnered with the College of Charleston's Department of Veteran and Military Student Services to lead post-show discussions following every performance of Grounded during the show's Piccolo Spoleto run at PURE Theatre. Discounted ticket prices are also available for veterans and students with a valid ID.
For McLaurin and company, the first step in engaging the audience after each performance was to make sure Grounded's post-show forums didn't devolve into the kind of thespian ego-stroking and stage talk that so often monopolizes the discussion.
"Every time we've done this show, we've always tried to partner with a local organization, whether it's a support group, a vet clinic, or a college. The biggest thing is I hate talk-backs. I knew that going into this there were so many issues in the play," says McLaurin. "I realized we've got to do something because there is a lot in here, especially with what happens at the end of the play, that leaves people going 'I need to unpack so I don't take this home with me, or if I do, I can at least open up the wound ever so slightly' and we can start to add something in there to help it heal."
And it is for this reason that Grounded aims to be representative of the very real struggles that veterans find on and off the field of battle. McLaurin wants to ensure that audiences hear their own stories on stage and not just the same, rehashed theatrics. Or as McLaurin jokes, "I feel like I've been seeing the same play over and over and over again — a family having some sort of drama over a kitchen sink."
If anything, Grounded is not that. It is a fresh look inside the life of a woman whose days are split down the middle between modern warfare and family ties. And a careful rumination on the vanishing line between work and home.
"There's a line in the play where she says it would be a different book, The Odyssey, if Odysseus came home from war every day. Every single day. That's the line that captured me. That is quite striking," says McLaurin. "Everybody is on their own individual journey. You get a little slice of it in Grounded, but these closer discussions open that up. Everybody is constantly in readjustment."