It’s no good pretending that Anne Hathaway is just your typical journeyman actor working on a challenging one-person play. The Academy Award winner is very much the glamorous young movie star in George Brant’s 2012 play, “Grounded,” incongruously cast as a working-class kid from Wyoming who defines herself and finds her joy as an American Air Force fighter pilot. But with director Julie Taymor (“The Lion King,” “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”) fielding the technology to get inside the pilot’s head, Hathaway masterfully navigates her terrifying dive from high-flying heroics to the appalling reality of guiding drones to their soft human targets.
The Public Theater’s intimate Anspacher space proves the ideal staging area for Taymor’s arsenal of pyrotechnics. As designed by Riccardo Hernandez, the stage is covered in clean white sand against a background of velvety blackness. The back wall is no wall at all, but an immense mirror, tilted to reflect the startling image of the Pilot, dressed in a U.S. Air Force flight suit (that she never removes) and positioned with her back to the audience. She stands tall and still in a cone of white light as a stream of sand trickles down her helmet and onto the desert floor.
But while the Pilot’s boots are in the sand, her head is in the clouds. “You are the blue,” she exults. “You are alone in the vastness and you are the blue. Astronauts, they have eternity. But I have color. I have blue.”
Coming down from this literal high, she dispenses with the poetic delivery and swaggers off to a pilots’ bar where she drinks with “my boys” and tells stories about flying, presumably in the same faux-country accent that sounds like nothing ever spoken in Wyoming. It’s really hard to accept this tall, elegant creature as one of the boisterous gang tossing back brewskies at some redneck bar. There’s also considerable awkwardness in the way she picks up some brave guy named Eric who isn’t unmanned by her professional pride and personal arrogance, although his own unglamorous job is working in the family hardware store.
Hathaway starts perking up when the Pilot falls in love, marries Eric and finds herself pregnant. The conflict is agony and the actress lets us see it. “I want the sky, I want the blue, but I can’t kill her,” she decides, even though the pregnancy means she has to take a desk job, which is every pilot’s nightmare.
In one of the strongest scenes in the play, the Pilot discovers that she has to make huge adjustments when she finally reports back for active duty. She’s been assigned to pilot the brand new, the absolutely latest plane the Air Force has to offer. But this remarkable plane is an unmanned drone, which she will pilot from a chair in a trailer in the middle of the desert.
The extraordinarily expressive lighting design (Christopher Akerlind), sound effects (Will Pickens) and projections (Peter Nigrini) go into overdrive when the Pilot’s new posting takes her and her family to Nevada and Eric gets a job as a blackjack dealer in a Las Vegas casino. Goodbye blue skies, hello neon nights.
The tricky part for both actor and director is the Pilot’s gradual enlightenment about what it actually means to fly a drone. With the barest of stage effects — a straightback chair and a yellow line snaking down the highway — Taymor suggests the mind-numbing experience of driving to a trailer in the middle of the desert every day to sit and stare at gray shapes on a gray screen for 12 hours.
The Pilot’s mental unraveling is also gradual, allowing Hathaway to fall apart gracefully. But once the Pilot’s vision expands, allowing her to make out the human forms in those gray shapes, she finds it harder and harder to think of herself as this godlike creature looking down in righteous judgement from her eye in the sky.
Once that heroic clarity of vision is lost, so is the Pilot. And it’s something of a shock to realize that Hathaway has successfully (and, yes, gracefully) navigated the harrowing transition that so many soldiers go through, from proud hero to haunted ghost.