Veterans of conflicts like Korea and Vietnam might scarcely recognize how wars are being fought today, and how they’ll be fought in the future. For one, women represent a larger portion of our armed forces than ever before. Secondly, the people doing the fighting need not always be on the battlefield or in the air above it.
The latest production at the Milwaukee Rep plays out with those changes at its heart. Grounded, which opens Wednesday night and runs through April 2nd, is a one-woman show telling the story of a successful female fighter pilot who falls in love, has a baby and then resumes her career as the pilot of a drone - a role that raises some major existential questions.
"This woman's identity is so wrapped up in her job. Her strength and her pride and everything she's known before we start this play is about being a pilot and being good at her job," says Jessie Fisher, who stars as the pilot. "And everything starts to shift and she starts to question so much of her reality when that is shaken - when she has to be a mother, when she has to be a wife, when she has to be someone who goes to war and then comes home every single day."
Milwaukee native Laura Braza, who returned home to direct the production, explains that the show is trying to accomplish two things at once: "One is to invite the audience in to this sort of campfire story experience of listening to the perspective of somebody who we don't normally hear from. And then the other is to give us the fully immersive experience of what it looks like to live a life where the screen is everything to you, where the screen becomes your world."
Braza admits that the play is an extreme example of the daily shifts we experience in our lives, but the play does not emphasize the role of gender in the military. "That is not the story that we're telling," she states. "This is a person who is unquestionably at the top of her field and respected by everyone who works with her. It's very much more a question of how her personal life starts to intersect."
She says the play written by George Brant had a unique appeal because of its intimacy with the audience. "It could only be done in the theater, which is that it holds the audience accountable in a totally different way. You are the other scene character as an audience member sitting there."
As an actress, Fisher knew that this play would be significant. "This was the kind of script that I read and knew in my gut that I needed to be part of this production," she says. As the sole character on stage surrounded by the audience, Fisher's primary goal is not to cause discomfort, but engagement.
Braza also notes that the Stiemke Studio Theater is the perfect place for a play like Grounded, and as someone who grew up going to the theater, being in Milwaukee to direct has been a fulfilling experience.
"I grew up seeing every production that [the Milwaukee Rep] did," she recalls. "It's absolutely one of the reasons I'm obsessed with theater and have been my whole life. So it's always been a dream to come back here."