The one-person show is a producer’s dream. Less overhead, same ticket price, more control over the process. Often the domain of comedians and comedic actors, the one-person show does actually have an honorable dramatic tradition, often in the context of bringing to life historical personalities for either educational purposes or for a contemporary retelling of the achievements and philosophies of departed personalities such as Mark Twain. Recent Rhode Island examples of this type of performance include Matt Fraza in Wilbury’s An Iliad, and both Christin Goff as Emily Dickinson (The Belle of Amherst) and Sandra Laub as Golda Meir (Golda’s Balcony) at 2nd Story. As powerful as these performances can be, they are glimpses of the past with hints of our present. However, a new trend, popularized at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is for one-person shows that are more direct, personal and, with the aid of production elements, an attempt at bringing the pathos of ordinary struggles into a dramatic setting. Last year, we saw Anne Pasquale’s Bob at Artist’s Exchange, a very intimate first-person account of her struggles growing up with an autistic brother. That show, with a fair dose of both sadness and humor, mirrored the current trend in single-actor performances where production value meets the intimacy of the lone actor. Projections, sound design and scenic elements attempt to elevate these new pieces from being more than a 90-minute audition monologue and the author’s words are not trusted to an actor’s voice alone.
The Gamm’s 30th Season opener, George Brant’s Grounded, captures this new ethos in spades, featuring one actress relating the tense and gripping story of an Air Force pilot who becomes accidentally pregnant and is stripped of her air duties (and her Top Gun-like camaraderie) for a position in “the chair force,” flying unmanned drones from a trailer in the Las Vegas desert. The Pilot, played by Boston actress Liz Hayes, is forced to confront the dichotomy of her motherhood and domestic life with her day job of hunting “military age males” in the desert via a colorless computer monitor and a joystick. The topic is ripped-from-the-headlines timely and Judith Swift’s direction ensures that there are enough dynamics here to keep Grounded from being static proselytizing. It’s a decent enough production, and Hayes receives an obligatory ovation at the end, but Brant’s script is often heavy-handed and its symbols a tad lunkheaded, leaving Swift and crew to rely heavily on some overdirection to support Hayes’ mighty efforts.
Sound Designer Charles Cofone gives us a preshow filled with the obligatory songs of pilots and flying and a hint of AC/DC, which features heavily in Brant’s script. Sara Ossana’s scenic design is sleek and attractive; a black naugahyde lounger rests atop a circular platform with a projection screen stretching upstage. It is sound and projections that will do the lion’s share of the work here as Hayes’ practiced and professional performance is punctuated at almost every turn by a literal depiction of the sights and sounds she describes. Matthew Terry’s lighting gives us the obligatory “blue,” the realm of the pilot, traded for the “pink” of the positive pregnancy test and the eventual “grey” of the drone’s monitor. The struggle that Hayes’ Pilot describes is wrapped up in these three colors. And, like the projections and colors behind her, The Pilot’s stories are strict and factual. We don’t have to decide how she feels; we are told in vivid detail what she thinks at every turn. Drone warfare is impersonal, but killing is still killing and to have to drive home every night and face My Little Pony (pink, of course) after targeting yet another (grey) Al-Qaeda Number Two is enough to split anyone in half. All she wants is the blue back in her life, the heavens stretching before her and a fair fight where the enemy at least has a chance to shoot back.
Again, it must be a difficult task for a director to keep this material from not sinking fast and Swift keeps Hayes moving as much as possible, creating levels and exerting at every step. For those used to seeing the very capable Gamm company of performers on this stage, Hayes seems like she was brought in as a ringer, an actress who exudes a Frances McDormand quality and makes The Pilot her own. Would this production have been the same with either Jeanine Kane or Karen Carpenter in the role? Perhaps it’s pointless to wonder, but Hayes is here and she handles everything that has been given her with grace and aplomb.
Grounded is perhaps an important script, but it’s not a great one. As single-actor plays go, this is not as riveting as others in its field, but it’s an interesting exercise in what can be done with this style. While not anywhere near as engaging as, say, Wilbury’s Iliad was, Grounded seems to have an audience willing to absorb themselves and walk away wagging a finger at the vagaries of impersonal technological warfare. A good message that may just need a better medium. A modest takeoff here, but we certainly look forward to the rest of Gamm’s 30th season.
The Gamm presents George Brant’s Grounded, directed by Judith Swift, September 4th through 28th. September 4th – 28th. 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket, RI, For tickets and more information, call 401-723-4266 or visit www.gammtheatre.org