I never understood the antipathy that some people seem to have for Anne Hathaway. She’s strikingly beautiful, of course, but in a way that is not supermodel offputting. She radiates an easy self-assurance that I suppose can come across as haughty, but her strongest performances reveal flashes of genuine vulnerability, as in her Oscar-winning role as Fantine in Les Misérables. She’s also insanely talented, as she proves in her commanding solo turn in George Brant’s ripped-from-last-week’s-headlines topical drama Grounded, playing through May 24 at the Public Theater. It’s a star-making performance in a challenging role that leaves her nowhere to hide — and with no one to fall back on for support.
Hathaway’s unnamed character is an Air Force fighter pilot with a Southern accent and a tomboy’s swagger. But after being grounded for the birth of her first child, she returns to the service to pilot not the F-16s that were her claim to aerial fame but the military’s newest cutting-edge warcraft: MQ-9 Reapers, unmanned drones that she steers from a military installation outside Las Vegas to take out targets in desert locales thousands of miles away. At first, she dismisses the assignment as the “Chair Force,” but it’s soon clear that killing strangers while sitting 18 inches from a monochromatic screen for 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, can take just as steep a toll on a person as flying in a combat zone. “If combat is risk and danger, I am not in it,” she marvels. But while there is less chance of her getting shot down or killed, and she can spend more time with her husband and daughter than if she served overseas, there are still consequences. Toggling so rapidly and regularly between combat and domestic life is not the best-of-both-worlds blessing she at first imagines. “It would be a very different book if Odysseus came home every day, every single day,” she notes.
Brant offers an intriguing portrait of a warrior wrestling with the particular issues of modern warfare — though his one-pilot focus necessarily gives shorter shrift to the broader political and ethical issues raised by the U.S. military’s increasing reliance on deadly remote warfare. (The Playbill’s program notes prove to be much more provocative on those points than anything in Brant’s play itself.) This is one case where the physical production outshines the material.
And what a physical production it is. Credit goes to Julie Taymor, directing her first Public Theater production, and her design team — particularly Peter Nigrini, whose eye-popping videos simulate everything from desert sands to surveillance images of combat to the Las Vegas strip, all while underscoring the videogame-playing quality of this pilot’s wartime experience. These images are projected onto Riccardo Hernandez’s simple but memorable set, a stage of raked sand with an slanted upstage mirrored wall that reflects the projections in fascinating, dynamic ways. The staging reinforces the central paradox of Grounded, that modern warfare can seem the stuff of videogames and artifice as well as viscerally and inescapably real. Grade: B+