Grounded a tour de force from actress Anne Penner

Do drone pilots suffer from PTSD?

What is it like to drop bombs on people from a bunker located thousands of miles from the theater of war?

And how is it any different from killing people from a plane soaring above the battlefield at 30,000 feet?

Anne Penner’s performance in the one-woman show, Grounded, is a powerful and unsparing account of an unnamed Air Force pilot’s descent into madness as she blows up “the guilty” remotely, from a bunker located in the desert outside Las Vegas.

I’ll not bury the lede here — Penner’s 75-minute tour de force is spine-tingling, fierce and un-blinking. Unless you are under strict quarantine orders, do not miss this one-woman show at the Newman Center on the campus of DU.

But you only have a few days. It closes Sunday.

An associate professor of theater at DU and co-host of the podcast “The Actor’s Mind,” Penner has always struck me as a cerebral actress. On and off the stage, she seems forever immersed in thought. George Brant’s highly literate play couldn’t have found a better interpreter. Though her performance is shot through with feeling, her pilot is first and foremost an analyst, a color commentator of her own demise.

Perfect for Penner.

Meanwhile, we, the audience, teeter on the edge of our seats, witnesses to the horrors of her job.

Lean plot

The plot is lean, blunt and unambiguous. This once cocky pilot of a supersonic Tiger fighter jet, in rapturous love with “the Blue” of the sky, is grounded by an unplanned pregnancy and forced to join the “Chair Force.”

Here she assumes the self-described roles of “eye in the sky,” a new kind of god operating a “Reaper” drone that rains death on the targets below.

Director Rick Barbour nails it in his conceptual scaffolding.

The set is empty but for a chair and drenched in blue light, or, at times, creeping shadows, the work of veteran lighting designer Shannon McKinney.

Penner’s movement through time and place is strictly enforced. As the walls of madness close around her, her macho, physically imposing pilot moves around an imaginary square or triangle, like a prisoner trapped in solitary confinement or a zoo animal pacing its fenced perimeter.

Even Penner’s gestures are meticulously thought out, with never a wasted or vague movement. And to match this intensity of light and movement, Jason Ducat’s score is brooding, always there lurking under the surface but never intrusive.

Our horrifying complicity

I was eager to see this play after reading the synopsis. As a news junkie, I had years ago devoured the research on what it’s like to deliver death by computer screen and joy stick.

Americans tend to avoid the horrifying reality of our role in the devastation and death in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria — death often served up from what the military chillingly describes as coming from “over the horizon.”

This New York Times profile of a real drone pilot, written three years after the play won national acclaim — with Anne Hathaway in the lead — points to the very real world behind Brant’s creation.

“He sat before a wall of flat-screen monitors that beamed live video feeds. On some days, Aaron discovered, little of interest appeared on the screens …”

“Other times, what unspooled before Aaron’s eyes was jarringly intimate: coffins being carried through the streets after drone strikes; a man squatting in a field to defecate after a meal (the excrement generated a heat signature that glowed on infrared); an imam speaking to a group of 15 young boys in the courtyard of his madrasa.”

In 2019, the Air Force employed 1,300 drone pilots and received authorization to hire 300 more — this at a time when the incidence of PTSD had numbered 4% and climbing.

“Symptoms of PTSD lead to intrusive thoughts, recurring nightmares, difficulty concentrating and insomnia,” according to the latest study.

All of this is present in Penner’s lines, spoken with the same supersonic speed of her beloved Tiger fighter jets.

Grounded couldn’t be more relevant for our time, not only in its depiction of remote killing, but in the ubiquitous and ever encompassing claustrophobia brought on by technology.

Whether its Facebook tracking us or hidden surveillance at a mall, there is a creeping feeling that we’re all being watched, tracked, counted, observed.

As Penner’s pilot wrestles with drone demons, she takes her daughter to the mall and is obsessed with the “little black circle” in the wall.

“There’s always a camera, right? J. C. Penney or Afghanistan. Everything is witnessed,” she tells those of us watching her from the dark.

“You who watch me and think you are safe, know this — know that you are not safe.”