Welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen. I will be your theater critic on this flight.
On behalf of star Aleks Malejs and director Kristen Tripp-Kelley, I'd like to welcome you to the fully equipped Kavinoky Theatre. Our flight time will be approximately 90 minutes, and we will be cruising at an alarming speed through uncharted airspace toward an unknown destination.
The flight will consist almost entirely of turbulence, and may explode your quaint notions about the nature of war in the 21st century, the challenge of maintaining work-life balance and the difference between fantasy and reality.
So turn off those cell phones and buckle your seat-belts, theatergoers. It's going to be a bumpy night.
The Kavinoky Theatre's soaring production of George Brant's play "Grounded," which opened Friday night, does not come with a pre-flight warning. And while the more genteel theater fans among us might prefer it for this refreshingly adventurous Kavinoky project, that's probably for the best.
The one-woman show, driven by the utterly commanding Aleks Malejs as an unnamed pilot, tells the story of a female fighter pilot struggling to transition to family life and to her new role as a drone pilot.
The play opens on Malejs standing tall and proud at center stage in a tan flight suit that serves as her second skin. She starts with an ode to the open blue sky, praising her plane's ability to tear through the stratosphere and the addictive feeling of G-force against her skin.
With equal parts charm and grace, Malejs gives a quick tour of her chance encounter with a young man at an Air Force bar, her subsequent love affair and then the unexpected but beautiful hiccup in her high-flying military career: a baby.
But from the moment she realizes she is pregnant, pianissimo notes of paranoia, suspicion and even cruelty start sneak into her performance. As the story moves to its harrowing conclusion, those aspects of her character's personality crescendo and coalesce, each with story focusing more and more on her character's inability to distinguish between reality and her own fears.
Brant's play is masterful in its fusion of a straightforward narrative with complex and multilayered psychological content, all of which is given clear voice by Malejs. She excels both at the sweet setup and the merciless takedown, and the journey she takes audiences on is crushing for those who buy in from the start.
When she offers up her brash attitude and her utterly believable delivery of early anecdotes, you feel personally disarmed and charmed. But in her character's cruelest or most unhinged moments, Malejs is almost able to make audience members feel victimized themselves.
Does this scare you? It should. But it is not a sensation to be missed, rare as such a captivating solo performance is on a Buffalo stage. Malejs not only acts out her character's confusion between fantasy and reality: she actually sows that same confusion in you.
She is aided in this by Brian Milbrand's three-channel projection of sand and sky, which despite some jerkiness largely succeed because of their simplicity. David King's simple, three-tiered set is a perfect vessel to contain this piece of psychological drama.
Though it is tied together by an easy-to-follow narrative, the primary task of Brant's play is to portray the unnamed pilot's complicated relationship to reality. In so doing, he presents pressing political questions that remain open-ended: When wars are conducted like video games and victims reduced to pixels on a screen, what happens to accountability? What happens to humanity?
If Malejs performance is any indication, the answer is nothing pretty.
3.5 stars (out of four)
Runs through Jan. 22 in the Kavinoky Theatre (320 Porter Ave.). Tickets are $38 to $42. Call 829-7668 or visit www.kavinokytheatre.com.