Street Corner Arts’ ‘Grounded’ is a harrowing journey into the dark corners of the human mind

Over the past few seasons, Street Corner Arts has made a name for themselves with topical and emotionally riveting productions,  winning acclaim and awards in the process. Their latest may be their most on-the-pulse production yet, an examination of the people at the heart of the military industrial complex, and the effects violence and war can have on the human psyche. Featuring a star-making turn from Sarah Danko, George Brant’s Grounded is a powerful journey into an emotional maelstrom, that, while not quite sticking its landing, takes its audience on a devastating trip.

When we first meet Grounded’s main character, she is a hot shot fighter pilot in Iraq, but after a weekend rendezvous with a sweet young man, her life is changed. She soon finds herself a new kind of a pilot, a member of the “chair force”, leaving the gorgeous blue skies behind for the domestic life of a mother, and the endless gray screen of a drone camera. What follows is an emotionally complex downward slide, as we see how constant contact to war and violence can leave permanent wounds on the soul.

Sarah Danko grabs our attention the moment she walks out on stage as The Pilot, all pride and swagger, and  she never lets us go. As the play is told almost entirely through narration, it could become endlessly dull in the wrong hands, and so we’re lucky that Danko tackles the role with confidence and dynamism. In the play’s early stages, one feels like they’ve started up a particularly interesting conversation at a party, and it’s this believability that makes the play’s eventually climax carry so much weight. Grounded takes its main character, and it’s audience, through a cavalcade of emotions, but with Danko’s thoughtful performance, these conflicting emotions never feel overblown or stilted, but instead are handled with subtlety, making the final downfall that inevitably grips out heroine feel honest, and the audience’s emotions earned.

Though Danko does much of the heavy lifting, there’s no denying the impact that the production team has on Grounded‘s effectiveness. Much of the play hinges on the sea of grey into which our protagonist stares for hours on end, and thanks to media designer Lowell Bartholomee and lighting designer Chris Conard, the audience is taken along on this ride, gazing into that gray ourselves. Conard’s clever use of color, along with the bizarre soundscapes created by Paul Feinstein, also helps the audience to get into the pilot’s head space, with subtle changes helping denote location, time of day, and, most importantly, emotional state.

Though the character’s arc is well handled through most the play, the ending, unfortunately, rings hollow. Though it doesn’t tarnish what came before, one can’t help but feel the soft touch that ran through so much of the play was replaced with a pummeling fist, as nuance gets thrown out the window and the play’s themes are spoken to us aloud. It could be seen as the a dour final destination for our heroine, but one can’t help but think it could have been handled in a more insightful way.

After the play, the director Benjamin Summers came on to the stage to invite us to the after party, stating that we didn’t have to go away sad. As I thought on this, I realized it wasn’t sadness that gripped me, but something more akin to a slowly creeping dread. It stayed in the back of my head for quite some time, all through my train ride home, in my evening whiskey, leaving me to wonder as I closed my eyes to sleep: will I be dreaming in gray tonight?

“Grounded” runs 80 minutes, and is playing through April 21st at Hyde Park Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit streetcornerarts.org.

Cast chemistry shines in Hyde Park’s ‘John’

From the first time they staged “Body Awareness”, Annie Baker plays have become a regular event at Hyde Park Theatre, and each time they’re one of the highlights of the season. To see Ken Webster direct a Baker play is to watch a master at his best, and now audiences get a chance to do just that, with their latest production, “John”, a simple but satisfying tale of a couple’s experience at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, PA. After their acclaimed production of the Pulitzer-prize winning “The Flick”, Webster and company return with another insightful look at modern society, this time taking a look at relationships, and how this generation relates to the ones that came before. It features a fine cast of Hyde Park newcomers and regulars alike, whose skills meld into a lovely tapestry or humor and pathos.

There are few writers working in the medium that capture the voice of the modern generation better than Pulitzer-prize winner Annie Baker. As she’s shown in masterpieces such as “Aliens”, “Circle Mirror Transformation”, and the award-winning “The Flick”, her characters’ dialogue seems particularly contemporary, while never feeling stilted or stage. The flow and ebb of conversations play out in ways they would in real-world situations, but they still serve the piece dramatically, a tight-wire act of writing that very few can hit. In “John”, she may have succeeded in this more than any of her pieces before, as each of the characters feel rounded, real, thanks in major part to Baker’s sharp, intelligent writing, that shows us how the three generations we see on stage are very different, but in their way, shockingly similar.

As “John” settles into its second act, a delight comes over one as you realize what Baker has given the audience: a chance to experience the lives of three generations of women. As the three women talk, there’s no judgement, no shame, just three powerful women talking about past loves, lives, and their place in the universe. It’s carried with gusto by the three performers, with Lana Dietrich in particular utilizing her amazing gift for reactive comedy. It’s simple, and it feels real, and there’s a comfort between the actors that’s evident from word one.

The true accomplishment in “John” doesn’t come from any particular performance, but instead in the way each performer works together. Zac Thomas and Catherine Grady feel like a real couple from the moment they walk on stage, with their eccentricities and squabbles coming off as the result of years together, and not forced character choices. In much the same way, the friendship between Katherine Catmull’s Kitty and Lana Dietrich’s Genevieve is instantly believable, with the two bouncing off each other with aplomb, with Catmull treating Dietrich’s loonyness with the kind of charm you reserve for your closest loved ones. Each character introduced adds to each scene, providing different dimensions with each conversation, all coming together to create a whole that comes together beautifully by the time we reach play’s end.

Hyde Park Theatre is one of Austin’s most consistent companies, and when they’re producing the works of Annie Baker, even more so. It’s no surprise, then, that their latest “John”, is yet another hit, a smartly directed look at several generations of women brought together at a bed and breakfast, which combines a modern, active script, and a cast with amazing chemistry. It obvious that director Ken Webster has a lot of affection for the works of Annie Baker, and it’s a relationship that works wonders. “John” may have a two and a half hour running time, but you’ll barely feel a minute of it, thanks in equal measure to the authenticity of Baker’s work, and Webster’s smooth direction of his game cast.