Minutes before the start of Grounded Saturday night at the Playwrights' Center, actor Sha Cage walked on the stage, snapped a sharp salute, and held it until the lights went down. The action defined her character -- a smart, cocky, and absolutely dedicated fighter pilot. See also: Sha Cage Returns to Frank Theatre in Grounded
Something else she carried also defined the evening: her well-thumbed and wrinkled script. Even though this was the second scheduled performance of Frank Theatre's Grounded, Cage had been unable to master her lines in time for the opening weekend.
That certainly affected the impact of George Brant's rich and heavy script, which offers great gobs of poetic language along with a searing look at modern, high-tech warfare.
Thankfully, Cage is one of the best talents in the Twin Cities. As with a top-tier athlete hobbled by injury, watching her at 80 percent is still compelling. It's hard to make a final judgment on one performance, but this role certainly fits with Cage's past work with the iconoclastic Frank, such as the African war drama Eclipsed and the incendiary Fucking A.
On the surface, Grounded explores drone warfare, where the controllers sit far from the danger, raining death on enemies and innocents who may get in the way.
Underneath that is the story of a woman's disintegration from living a split life -- one half in long-range combat, the other with her family in suburban Las Vegas.
Cage plays a nameless pilot, a hot shot from the seat of her fighter jet who loves traversing the deep blue of the sky -- and lighting up bad guys with sidewinder missiles. She is an absolute patriot.
A chance affair leaves her pregnant -- and grounded behind a desk. She eventually gets the opportunity to go back on active duty, but it isn't in her beloved "Tiger." Instead, she finds herself controlling a drone from a trailer in the Nevada desert.
Each day, she leaves her husband and daughter at home to sit in a Barcalounger, fighting a war half a world away. Then she returns home, trying to adjust from her day of destruction.
Cracks appear in the patriot facade. Even with script in hand, Cage reaches deep -- doubt rising in her voice, anger emerging in her body language, fear coming to her eyes.
By the end, Grounded becomes a horror story.
The presence of the script does become a distraction, occasionally halting momentum as Cage searches for her place.
But much of the show -- sharp direction and an effective, minimal set -- is already in place. I would expect Cage to be off book by this weekend. If so, Grounded should be ready to truly fly.
IF YOU GO:
Grounded Friday through November 23 Playwrights' Center 2301 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis $20-$25 For tickets and more information, call 612.724.3760.