Much of the way through Grounded, a stunning new play by George Brant at SF Playhouse, presented as part of its Sandbox Series, the unnamed young woman who is its sole character (Lauren English) says, "I see myself from above," as she's outside her Las Vegas home after a long commute, picturing her family inside and wondering if she can affect normalcy for one more evening.
In another life, the woman spent a lot of time looking down from above. A former F-16 pilot, she dropped out of the Air Force to have a daughter and then rejoined it when the front of U.S. militarism in the Middle East was shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan. At that time, the military's preferred aircraft shifted from fighter jet to drone, a change that uproots the life of Grounded's protagonist and splinters her identity. In being "grounded," she is forced to give up Tiger, her jet, and Blue, her word for the sky, with which she feels a connection that English makes part-familial, part-religious, and part-sexual. But she must also give up life on the front, piloting the drones during workday shifts, or, as she puts it, "driving to war" each day.
Excepting the moral implications of her killing — she's not above indulging in bloodlust — the character always sees herself from above, narrating her encounters with her tolerant husband, Eric, and her young daughter as if she can't fathom her role as commuting wife and mother. In a way, she's the actual young girl of the family, precociously observing and analyzing the dynamics of a world that's new to her; but she's also, as she calls herself, "a lone wolf" caged in domesticity, ever searching for threats in the shadows of her suburban bedroom ceiling. Drones might remove the threat of death to a pilot, but, Brant implies, they haven't made a dent in the threat of post-traumatic stress disorder; in fact, its dangers might be all the more amplified with stark daily transitions between the home and war fronts.
Brant creates a classically suspenseful action script out of the character's scenes chasing terrorists, even as she appears to be doing little more than playing a videogame, but he makes equally tense the quiet scenes of her home life. The small shifts in how well she's able to wear the untroubled façade her husband requires register like quakes. So thoughtful are English's choices, under the direction of Susannah Martin, that each phrase in Brant's fragmented, rhythmic script has the complexity of a paragraph. She is ably supported by the artful sound design of Theodore J.H. Husker, which, in one haunting touch, renders explosions not as thunderous booming but as a quiet sizzle.
Word for Word's production of In Friendship also centers on an outsider looking in. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the company performs prose that has not been adapted for the stage, keeping both full paragraphs of narration and every "he said" intact but so cannily varying the pace and mode of delivery as to make blocks of text feel as dramatic as dialogue.
In Friendship is a series of short stories by Zona Gale, an early 20th century writer. The narrator (Susan Harloe), called "A Writer" in the program, her bohemian ways announced by her flowing velvet robes (other costumes, by Laura Hazlett, are more starchily of the period) is an avatar for Gale; the character has recently moved to the small town of Friendship, Wis. (which was based on Gale's hometown), after time in more cosmopolitan areas. She is a wry, trenchant observer of her neighbors' provincial, gossipy ways — they pronounce "debut" like "day-boo" — but also tender toward them, which means they never become busybody stereotypes. Rather, through stories both slapstick and poignant, Gale finds within seemingly small lives evidence of the universal and the mysterious.
Not that, with this cast of 11, of whom all nine female performers are charter Word for Word members, there was any danger of a character being under-realized. Jeri Lynn Cohen excels as Calliope Marsh, a troublemaker who inhales gossip like it's sustenance but whose emotional candor, as she huffs about not being able to "boss around" her own feelings, is as touching as it is humorous. Every member of the ensemble gets lavish opportunity to maximize her comedic skills, but Sheila Balter, as Mis' Holcomb, stands out as the cast's clown. At one moment, as she reads aloud from a book about Persia to help with grief over her daughter's unfortunate marriage, she stares, mesmerized, into the audience, suddenly aware of the existence of great teeming world beyond her own, before snapping back to her small orbit of cherry pies and visitors calling.
"Anyone who takes seriously," the play begins, "our faint feuds or even our narrow judgments does not know and love our Middle Western villages." That's partly true, but this production also makes the subtle case that Gale's comic characters are to be taken deeply seriously; in them, the character A Writer has found, however unwillingly, a microcosm of the vast wealth of human experience.