Alice Bibara in Grounded

Look at the play script for George Brant’s one woman show GROUNDED (2014) and all you see are pages and pages of short thin lines of dialogue. Single spaced columns and columns of it. Often it’s just one word in a sentence and there are only a couple of stage directions in the whole script. Yet it’s a finely detailed, haunting story which explores the complex human cost behind what politicians are inspired to call victory.

GROUNDED has garnered several awards and nominations and attracted high quality artists. And sure, you can give it a high tech treatment like Director Julie Taymor (Lion King) did when Anne Hathaway undertook it to considerable acclaim on Broadway but the piece is delicate and any production of it comes down to getting the words from page to heart as purely as possible. Director, Victor Kalka has given us a version for THE FRINGE that has wisely put very few barriers between the page and the heart. As presented to us in a wonderful tour de force by Alice Bibara as The Pilot, the words are right there in that small white space and as if held by G Forces, you cannot get away.

The text states that the audience is the confidant of the protagonist, a female US Air Force pilot who is pulled from ‘the blue’, grounded, by an unexpected pregnancy. We travel the meeting, marrying and birthing with her but as she is redeployed to fly drones, her confidings are unnervingly less coherent. The confusion and disassociation is inherently created by the destructive power of combat, PTSD and killing from a bunker in Nevada. She looks you in the eye when she speaks and we fervently wish to whisper calm thoughts back, she obviously needs our help.

Alice Bibara is one of my favourite actors and I loved her work as HEDDA AFTER HEDDA GABLER last year. Here, she once again commands the small stage. The unique character description at the beginning of the text gives the requirements for a pilot rather than an actor. No allergies it says and prescribes sitting height, vertical standing height, body fat, 1.5 mile running times and push-ups. Bibara physically suits the part. Strong and tall, we meet The Pilot stripped down to underwear before her donning of boots and flight suit.

Back to the text and the intro also reads that the telling should be active. This small space with audience chairs on the floor fencing her in is well suited for that intent too. The character description wants a pilot with heightened situational awareness and Bibara’s Pilot crunches down or stands tall, stalks the space or paces it , stands still or rushes into empty air with clear intent driven by the emotional topography.

This is a woman who loves hard. Being in the sky, in bed with Eric or crouched down to her daughter, Bibara gives us a woman under the influence of her passions. And when she looks you in the eye, the emotion is searing especially as the decay of reason sets in. She is cocky and fierce when we meet her and those traits remain as bedrock for the tender, motherly, wifely ‘go home every day’, brown bag warrior Bibara inhabits.

Vocally and physically she delivers The Pilot’s voice and gestures with an expansion or condensing pulled from what the pilot experiences in the air. And in a reflection of a text that defines the protagonist as having a well-rounded education, always having been top of the class, Bibara radiates intelligence. You just know she can do all that complex math.

It’s a major feat of memory to learn 75 minutes of text like this without artificially wrangling the sequences into overt delineation. Instead, Kalka’s production gives no indicators of the beats that actors use to prepare. Instead the choppy dialogue flows allowing the audience to ignore the structure and just sweep along with the story.

And this story is executed with a couple of superbly operated lighting and sound cues, a chair … and a stellar performance.

GROUNDED continues at the Off Broadway Hub of THE FRINGE until Saturday 17 September.