Sometimes fear is the best motivator.
When she took a look at the script for George Brant’s “Grounded,” a one-woman play about an Air Force fighter pilot coping with the changing landscape of 21st-century warfare, actress Celeste Oliva wasn’t sure it was for her. But director Lee Mikeska Gardner was insistent.
“When Lee first offered me the role I said, ‘I don’t know. This is so scary,’ ” Oliva recalls. “She said that’s why she thinks I should do it. I said, ‘OK, but I’m going to hold your hand the whole way!’ ”
The play, presented by the Nora Theatre Company, began performances this week at Central Square Theater in Cambridge,
The piece holds challenges beyond that of a typical monologue. It’s written in blank verse, full of irregular line breaks. There are no overt scene changes, and few stage directions. The character description lists a series of highly specific requirements, including the ability to perform 27 push-ups in one minute and to have graduated at the top of one’s class, perhaps describing the attributes of an actual fighter pilot. In the script, playwright Brant includes the rather open-ended stipulation: “The design should be more abstract than literal, or perhaps transform the literal into abstract.”
But the story could hardly be more concrete in its depiction of one woman’s experience, even as it implies broader social comment along the way.
Oliva plays a character identified only as The Pilot, a successful F-16 fighter pilot who has become a top dog in the macho culture of the Air Force. But an unplanned pregnancy pulls her out of the cockpit and into an office-bound branch of service she derisively calls the “Chair Force.” Retrained as a drone pilot, she sits in a trailer in the Nevada desert, tracking targets in the Middle East. After her daily shifts, she drives home to her husband and daughter. But her two worlds become hopelessly, and perhaps tragically, intertwined.
“No matter what the technological and strategic side of warfare comes to, ultimately it still always trickles down to who that soldier is — in this case, a fighter pilot. That struck me at a very human level,” says Gardner, who is in the midst of her first season as artistic director of the Nora Theatre Company.
The play has proven a sudden mid-career hit for Brant, a prolific playwright for two decades who hadn’t received a New York production until “Grounded” landed off-Broadway in 2014. From there the play saw nearly a dozen productions around the world in less than a year, including at Pawtucket’s Gamm Theatre last fall. It also captured an award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and had a well-received run in London. Shortly after the incarnation at the Nora, New York’s Public Theater will be mounting a production of “Grounded” starring Anne Hathaway, helmed by rock-star theater director Julie Taymor.
The story of The Pilot resonates particularly well for Oliva, who grew up on a series of military bases as her stepfather’s Army career took the family around the world. In its examination of the psychological toll endured by a new kind of commuter warrior, “Grounded” suggests that drone pilots lack the support systems available to their comrades overseas.
“I was a military brat so I knew that sort of world, the not talking about stuff, not talking about work. I lived in Germany when the [Berlin] Wall was still up. These alerts would happen, and my stepfather would just have to leave, and you didn’t talk about it. You certainly didn’t ask about it. There was a normalcy to it,” Oliva says. “The difference is we were surrounded by people who had to live that same reality with us.”
This production arrives at an auspicious time for Oliva, whose work on Boston stages has been much celebrated of late, following a years-long break from the theater that she took after the birth of her children. Her turns in the Lyric Stage Company productions of “Becky’s New Car” and “Chinglish” were particularly well-received. Earlier this season, Oliva starred in the world premiere of “Reconsidering Hanna(h)” at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre.
But a lower-profile job — acting in a series of short films about post-traumatic stress disorder, produced for members of the armed forces and their families — may have better prepared her for this role.
“It’s a really serious problem,” she says of PTSD. “We train our military personnel to do certain things and yet we don’t train them on how to go back to the [civilian] world.”
Indeed, a Department of Defense study released in 2013 found that pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles, a.k.a. drones, experience post-combat mental health issues with the same frequency as pilots who are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Driving through the desert outside Las Vegas, The Pilot thinks of the fighter pilots with whom she used to serve and ponders whether she’s in the “same desert, different war” or the “same war, different desert.” In the terse poetry of Brant’s script, The Pilot expresses her ambivalence about her new posting: “First day on the job/ The war/ Whatever.”
Gardner says the play is even more timely than when she selected it for the season, citing the film “Good Kill,” starring Ethan Hawke as a drone pilot working in a trailer very similar to the workplace of The Pilot. The collateral damage incurred by drone strikes was a key plot device in the most recent season of Showtime’s “Homeland,” and the issue has continued to fuel a contentious domestic political debate.
But the director is counting on the power of the play to come from a very tangible place.
“We see one person’s journey through this horribly dark tunnel, and we see her come to some sort of light at the end of it,” Gardner says. “It happens to also be about a drone pilot.”