Blue skies turn stormy in Nora’s tense ‘Grounded’

Celeste Oliva as The Pilot in the Nora Theatre production of "Grounded." Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

Celeste Oliva as The Pilot in the Nora Theatre production of “Grounded.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

CAMBRIDGE — The image of the fighter pilot — nurtured and reinforced in movies such as “Top Gun” — is that of a swashbuckling, hard-livin’, hard-playin’, hard-drinkin’, and hard-lovin’ daredevil, who yearns to throw off earth’s shackles and fly “alone in the blue.”

Men and women such as The Pilot played by Celeste Oliva in the Nora Theatre production of George Brant‘s “Grounded,” now at the Central Square Theatre through March 22.
Oliva takes us through her personal journey, from soaring through the skies to a more sedate family life, and then as a flier of a different sort — the operator of an unmanned drone, seeking out targets from the safety of a windowless trailer in the Las Vegas desert.
Oliva steadily ratchets up the intensity in the 90-minute piece performed without an intermission.
Nothing is ever black and white when it comes to war, and the character becomes enveloped in gray –not just the gray black and white images on her monitor, but the gray areas about what she is doing and where it fits with her other roles as wife and mother.
She was happy to fly through the fog of war as a captain and Air Force F-16 fighter pilot, and was validated by the camaraderie she shared with her fellow pilots, with whom she bonded, drank, and told stories.
But a chance encounter with a guy called Eric, a tryst — and a pregnancy test — forces her back to the ground until daughter Samantha is born. And when she returns to active duty as both a wife and the mother, she is jolted when she receives the news: her new command will be operating an unmanned drone, hunting for terrorists half a world away.
“You want me to be a part of the ‘chair force,’” The Pilot asks her commanding officer incredulously after she reports back to duty.
The answer is yes. Eventually, she begins to take her work home with her, and her identity of wife and mother more and more starts taking a back seat to her role of hunter — and killer, even if by remote control.
The hunt for “The Real No. 2” in the terrorist command becomes obsessive. She stops taking off her flight suit when between shifts in the endless loop of 12 hours on, 12 hours off.
Oliva is situated in the center of the theater with audience on all four sides, and above her is a circle of black-and-white monitors projecting the sort of images she would see in her work, allowing the audience in the intimate space to hone in a bit more on what she’s experiencing.
Strong solo performances are never just that. The director, Nora Artistic Director Lee Mikeska Gardner, and Oliva have combined to deliver a strong, assured performance, from the steely resolve at the start to the vulnerability that a fighter pilot is never supposed to show when staring down an opposing pilot.
Some casualties of war, we find, are sitting in a windowless bunker somewhere in the desert.
The Nora Theatre production of George Brant’s “Grounded.” Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Design team: Steven Royal (scenic), Wen-Ling Liao, Dewey Dellay (sound) and Katherine Lieber (projections). At the Central Square Theatre through March 22.