Be warned: InterAct Theatre Company's production of George Brant's Grounded comes with a message for us - and it is haunting. The messenger is The Pilot (Kittson O'Neill), a devoted F-15 fighter pilot who finds herself pregnant, and after being sent home to deliver her daughter, she finds herself drafted - perhaps as punishment for her pregnancy, perhaps not - into the "Chair Force."
The Chair Force represents the new way we conduct war: in 12-hour shifts from a bunker in the Nevada desert, while watching grainy gray surveillance video of another desert thousands of miles away. All the The Pilot has to do is guide her eye in the sky (an unmanned drone) over her target, press a button, and say, quietly, "Boom."
Brant's tightly packed 80 minutes are a study in contrast and opposition. When she's flying, The Pilot rhapsodizes about the freedom of "the blue," but she agonizes after seeing the pink of a pregnancy test. She cruises unseen over her Middle Eastern quarry while her husband is watched by an all-seeing eye at the Luxor casino - a pyramid - where he finds work as a blackjack dealer. Over there is now over here.
At the center of it all, O'Neill, a tall, strong woman in an olive flight suit, tears her way through the script. She's soft and beautiful when reminiscing about falling in love, then swaggering, tough, swelled with pride in her many skills. "He kisses me like the rock star I am," she smirks. She's efficient, then troubled, then terrifying. It's a performance, directed by Kathryn MacMillan, that gets under your skin the way The Pilot seems to have taken over O'Neill's.
Stalking Nick Embree's set, an arched metal apparatus that could stand in for a cockpit, prison, or triangular pixels on a video screen, we watch as the unreal slowly replaces the real in The Pilot's life. Masha Tsimring's lighting assists mightily with changes in both the narrative and her character, particularly when she's underlit in an unsparing white glare, while Rob Kaplowitz's sound design acts as subtle guide throughout.
Although Grounded follows a somewhat predictable chain of events, the way it's presented is anything but. This is more than a solo show about the many challenges of being a woman in the military. In fact, that aspect of the story is almost beside the point. It's about our detachment and distance from the fiery reckonings we wreak every day, all over the world, and how, when it comes to the dirty work of killing, a price will always be paid.
Grounded. Sept. 30-Oct. 23. InterAct Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St. Tickets: Tickets: $15-$35. Information: 215-568-8079, www.interacttheatre.org/grounded.