In George Brant's latest play, the one-woman, lyrical drama "Grounded," an F-16 fighter pilot is re-assigned to the despised "Chair Force" to operate a drone from a desk in the Nevada desert.
A tough cookie enraptured by the blue sky, she's played by the engaging Lauren English in San Francisco Playhouse's "Sandbox" series of new plays, and she is the best thing about the low-tech production.
"Grounded" is part of a "rolling premiere"; two other theaters, co-members of the National New Play Network, will also be premiering it.
Brant, a nationally prominent and prolific Ohio-based playwright, won a prestigious Smith Prize for the play, which was initially staged by the Gate Theatre in the U.K. Upcoming productions are scheduled nationwide this season.
In other words, the play is hugely successful.
But, notwithstanding English's excellent acting as directed by Susannah Martin, I found "Grounded" uninvolving at both the personal and the political level.
It traces the increasing mental disintegration of the pilot as she is forced the make the transition from flying dangerous missions in Afghanistan to sitting at a computer console for 12-hour stretches, occasionally bombing "the guilty" in the faraway Middle Eastern desert below.
Relating her story in the present tense over the course of a too-long 80 minutes or so, she describes how she falls in love, gets married, has a baby girl and, returning to work after maternity leave, must accept her new assignment.
Simultaneously she's adjusting to life as a mother and wife, and to coming home nightly — instead of on occasional leave — to her perfect husband and perfect child.
The threat of death has been removed — but slowly, fighting a desert war from another, faraway desert, so has her sense of identity and ultimately her connection with reality.
English gracefully navigates a long, narrow playing area, directly addressing audience members, who face each other on both sides of her. A large screen at one end projects the shadowy images that she sees on her computer, representing the way her world has turned from clear blue to murky gray.
The venue allows you to see up close how authentic English's emotional transitions are. But the relentlessly linear narrative structure grows tiresome, its storytelling quality feels contrived and the play fails to pack the visceral punch that the material demands.
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: Costume Shop, 1119 Market St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; closes Sept. 7
Contact: (415) 677-9596 or www.sfplayhouse.org