Grounded: High-flying acting in a fascinating play at Tampa Rep

Emilia Sargent's performance makes Grounded a must-see.

click to enlarge Grounded: High-flying acting in a fascinating play at Tampa Rep
Désirée Fantal

To call Emilia Sargent a star isn’t nearly sufficient: Actors with less skill have worn that particular sobriquet, and the word has come to sound cheap, more about faddish popularity than phenomenal ability. So let me try another approach: Emilia Sargent is one of the most gifted actresses I’ve seen in this or any metropolitan area, and yes, that includes New York City. Her performance in Grounded, currently playing at Tampa Rep, is mind-bogglingly complex, moving, worrying, triumphant. For the 90 uninterrupted minutes of George Brant’s one-woman show, she’s a feminist heroine, a war-loving fighter pilot, a lusty wife, a doting mother, and a once-reluctant drone operator whose job increasingly wears down her self-possession and her sanity. I’ve praised Sargent many times in plays with multiple characters, dramas like Streetcar Named Desire, Betrayal, and Silent Sky, but in Grounded there’s no other performer to take the heat off, to give her time away from the audience’s scrutiny. And she’s grand, potent, splendid. I’m not sure what we did to deserve her.

Consider the story: Sargent plays a character known only as The Pilot, and when we first meet her she’s flying an F-16 called “Tiger,” and hanging out, between flights, with the boy pilots at the bar. Then she meets a guy named Eric, they go to bed, and she finds herself pregnant. Air Force rules insist that she temporarily give up her aircraft, but she assumes that after childbirth, she’ll again take to the blue skies. Little Samantha is born, our heroine reports back to her commanding officer — and is told that henceforth she’ll be operating a drone from a base in Nevada. She objects; she’s overruled; and she tries to reconcile herself to conducting America’s Middle East wars without ever leaving a trailer near Las Vegas. At first, she resents her new job in the “Chair Force,” but then it turns out that her old love of the hunt is being reignited. Soon she’s taking great pleasure in wiping out bad guys, protecting American convoys, being a relentless Eye in the Sky. She becomes so invested in her new responsibilities, in fact, that she doesn’t see the cracks slowly spreading in her equilibrium. All those hours tensely watching for enemy combatants begin to turn into an obsession, start to affect her relationship to Eric and their daughter. Eric notes it and tries to get help. But our Pilot is gripped now, determined to punish those adversaries she calls “the guilty.” Can she continue without a fatal break?

Now, a moment’s consideration of the above synopsis, and you’ll have a sense of what Grounded requires from its single performer. The actor in this part has to be a soldier, a lover, a parent, a predator, and — most unexpectedly — a casualty. She has to make us believe that she’s as comfortable flying past the speed of sound as she is raising her baby daughter, that she’s sexually aggressive at one moment and distractedly faking it all moments later. Most of all, Grounded’s actor has to survive 90 minutes of unbroken audience attention in a small black box theater (at the University of South Florida) that’s unforgiving of error. And Sargent, superbly directed by C. David Frankel, does it all. In her khaki-green flight suit — devised by Sargent herself — on a stage bare except for an office chair — designed by Lea Umberger — she introduces us to her unusual life, then carries us along as again and again it changes direction. Her success is a consistent one: There’s not a single moment that’s more persuasive than any other, not an instant when you think, oh yes, there’s the person behind the portrait. I believed Sargent years ago when she dared to play Blanche DuBois, and I believe her now. I can’t imagine anyone else playing this part except as she does.

But how many Bay area theatergoers will see her? As a small, impecunious theater, Tampa Rep isn’t able to advertise very much; the result was an audience of about a dozen on the evening that I attended. What a pity: One of the best performances of the year is onstage, and, if my experience is any indication, most people will miss it. So consider this a challenge: If you care about great acting, if you consider yourself a connoisseur of local arts, check out Grounded while you can. The writing is fine; the performance is stellar.

But there I go, thinking about stars again. In this case, I guess, it’s just very hard not to.



4 of 5 stars

Studio 120, Theatre Bldg., USF, 3837 USF Holly Dr., Tampa.

Through Jan. 29: Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. $20-$25. 




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