Arts » Theater

Grounded is a taut and timely examination of the psychopathology of drone pilots

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It sounds like a cross between the U.S. military's sensory deprivation experiments in the 1950s and Stanley Milgram's obedience studies in the following decade: Make a subject stare into a monochromatic video screen for 12 hours per day, seven days a week, while wearing a headset that filters out undesired audio.

Fill the monitor with a feed from an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, which the subject controls with a joystick. Position the craft in a warzone, with voices in the headset issuing orders to fire upon human and materiel targets and then assess the damage to architecture, equipment and bodies. Make this the subject's main daily form of social interaction.

Subtract two more hours out of every day for the commute between work and home, and eight more for sleep, leaving the subject two hours a day for all other activities, including bathing and meals.

Under a regimen like that, how long would it take you to crack?

The question arises from George Brant's GROUNDED, a taut psychological drama whose Southern premiere at Manbites Dog Theater continues a meteoric rise to critical acclaim that began at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival seven months ago.

The urgency of the inquiry mounts when we note that, according to research and news reports, this scenario is the workaday experience of many of our country's military drone operators, not some classified, coercive black-box protocol.

In this gripping one-person show, the falling action (the term is literal in this case) starts early when a brassy, unnamed F-16 pilot—played by Duke graduate Madeleine Lambert, in a triumphant return to the region—suddenly finds her wings clipped as the result of an unintended pregnancy.

Just recently, the pilot exulted among a squadron of top guns who helped take out what she calls "Sadaam's dipshit army." If she gloried in her achievements, she valued even more her solitary relationship with what she terms "my sky." Her cherished solitude is replaced by a less auspicious one when she's transferred to the "Chair Force," a squadron of drone pilots stationed in the Nevada desert.

Her new assignment places her in a windowless room "that seals me off completely from all sky, all blue." Someone else controls the camera through which she views the world; her headset is "full of backseat drivers." But perhaps worst of all is the total lack of color. "I stare at gray," she says, "at a world carved out of putty."

And there she must stay, hypervigilant, for 12 hours each day.

There is plenty of alarming real-world evidence about the negative mental effects of such isolation. In 2008, an Associated Press story documented the Air Force's attempts to mediate significant psychological stress among its drone pilots in Southern California. In his 2010 book, Predator, drone pilot Matt J. Martin called his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan "a schizophrenic existence between two worlds." And French researcher Grégoire Chamayou probes deeply into what he calls "the psychopathologies of the drone."

One by one, the pilot's modest coping mechanisms begin to fail her. As the screen becomes her world, the border between warzone and home starts to blur, and this gray area increasingly separates her from a loving husband and daughter. Her prior joy in combat morphs into something darker, more dissociative: "Olympus debates the fate of the lowly jeep," she says as she looks down on a target. "We gaze down upon the guilty and the innocent both, on all our children. We watch over you, my children. We protect and destroy you."

Jon Haas' video mix emphasizes the themes of surveillance that Brant touches on in his thought-provoking script.

Under Talya Klein's direction, Lambert has sculpted a sharp, strong and ultimately tragic figure. Last Friday, during the second performance of the run, both were still rushing a number of the transitions and a bit of the prose in the attempt—too successful—to keep the show from dragging. If they can strategically pull back on the throttle a bit in places, an already compelling work will become even more so.

This article appeared in print with the headline "A room without a view"

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