The American Pilot examines the soul of a superpower

The story of a downed airman reflects the U.S.'s place in the world

THE AMERICAN PILOT
Walking Shadow Theatre Company
at Minneapolis Theatre Garage
through May 18; 612.375.0300

It used to be said that when England sneezed, Ireland caught a cold. Well, times have changed. Nowadays, when America sneezes, certain parts of the world say gesundheit through a generous mouthful of cluster bombs. Five-hundred-pound gorillas leave big footprints, after all—a notion that few of the villagers in David Grieg's The American Pilot would dispute.

The lights come up on an American in a flight suit (Joseph Bombard), flat on his back, bloodied, and with one leg in a splint that doesn't speak well for the local medical care. It turns out he's crashed his plane in a rural valley in an unnamed country beset by civil war. The farmer who found him (Peter Ooley) has stashed him away in his barn until he figures out what to do with this problematic and entirely unwanted gift from the sky.

Soldier of misfortune: Peter Ooley, Liana Simonds, and Joseph Bombard
Dan Norman
Soldier of misfortune: Peter Ooley, Liana Simonds, and Joseph Bombard

Soon enough our hapless farmer is visited by Trader (Sam Landman), a local sharpie in a leather jacket, who takes a gratuitous whack at the soldier with the butt of his rifle, then darkly alludes to greater forces at play.

Bombard is plausibly desperate and terrified up to this point, though the play requires that he spend most of the evening wincing, squirming, and grimacing on the floor (you feel like tossing him a Vicodin). His trepidation becomes all the more understandable with the arrival of Captain (Robert Gardner), the ruthless and sophisticated military honcho who is leading a rebellion against a national government backed by...wait for it...the United States.

Greig displays, at best, a workmanlike facility in this play, but his drawing up of the Captain, combined with Gardner's performance, wrings out a depth and intelligence that make for uncomfortable viewing on a peaceful American night. Gardner's Captain is all too aware of the magnitude of the parcel dropped into his lap. At times doleful, at others chillingly sadistic, Gardner portrays his strongman as a stoic and a nihilist, an idealist in action and a fatalist in awareness. The pilot, appropriately enough given the circumstances, spits in his face when he gets the chance.

Throughout, Grieg (and director Amy Rummenie) adeptly works around the language barrier between the pilot and his accidental captors by having the villagers speak in lightly accented English between themselves, while the farmer's daughter Evie (Liana Simonds) clumsily communicates with the flyboy in phrases she learned from TV. The prevailing attitude that emerges is summed up in two rather homely lines. When the Captain tries to explain the situation to the farmer, he says, "America is happening to you." When the pilot, broken, threatened, and ostensibly helpless, evokes his comrades searching for him, he looks around and proclaims, "You people are so fucked."

And they know it. The Captain, dreaming of an exile into family life in Norway that never happened, looks at the helpless soul in his charge and proclaims him the most powerful person within miles. A subplot emerges that never really gets off the ground concerning the Captain's translator (Matthew Vire) and his suitability for Evie as a husband, a proposition that becomes a bit squishy when the translator expounds on his journeys to America and his generous spending there on booze and pornography.

Finally we arrive at the cordite-scented ending and wonder where we have journeyed. The play depicts a world in which Americans are viewed by the world's dispossessed in a glowing light, simply because of the power inherent in being an American. It's a provocative choice of a play, and a capable staging.

Power and pain go together, as Greig posits in one of his better moments of writing. What I wondered is where pleasure fits into the calculus, and whether such a thought is an untoward luxury at this moment in history.

 
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