The American Pilot
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 2, 2006
David Greig's new play The American Pilot is one of the sharpest and most incisive works of the last dozen years of so. It confronts a couple of important issues—America's place in the world, first of all; and, more fundamentally, the ways that self-interest and politics, in all its various forms, interact and influence events. Under Lynne Meadow's solid direction, it does these things with glorious theatricality, placing its audience right in the middle of its gripping story and in the midst of its challenging, gnawing themes. It is certainly one of the finest new plays of the year.
It takes place in a deliberately unnamed country that we assume is in the Middle East or Eastern Europe or Western Asia or possibly Africa: a place where a civil war has been going on for many years and where contact with America and what we used to call the "free world" is extremely limited for most of its citizens. Here, in a remote rural area, a farmer has discovered an American pilot whose plane crashed into the side of a mountain, and has brought the pilot, whose leg is broken, into his barn. The farmer never wanted anything like this to happen to disturb his quiet, anonymous life. But it has happened, and now he and the people of his village have to figure out what to do next.
The farmer goes first to a trader, who is a member of the village council; he in turn reports the American to the Captain, the local head of an insurgent group trying to overthrow the government and de facto leader of the district. The Captain brings his young lieutenant along as an interpreter, and eventually they determine that the American pilot needs to be killed, on videotape, as a means of publicizing their (losing) battle. The farmer's daughter, a remarkable visionary named Evie, is horrified by this plan; meanwhile, the farmer and his wife want to marry Evie to the interpreter because the Captain has told them that if they do, their son will be spared military service. The trader has his own agenda, as well, based purely on what will be most profitable for him.
I won't divulge how this story turns out, even though the characters reveal the ending themselves long before the play's conclusion (to Greig's immense credit, we hear them but we don't really believe them). What I will tell you is that each of these individuals is given space and time to explain to us how they feel about this sudden intrusion, and why they've elected to react to it as they have.
And while Greig uncovers some truths about how America may be perceived by the rest of the world—truths that may be unsettling and upsetting to an American audience—he has placed an American in the role of victim in his story: the one character who is frightened, alone, in pain, occasionally tortured, and in very real danger of losing his life is the young pilot. It's impossible not to feel for him, even when his sense of entitlement aggressively asserts itself.
Meadow's direction is simplicity itself, utilizing a spare, half realistic/half abstract set by Derek McLane and a staging style that's half naturalistic/half story theatre. Christopher Akerlind's lighting is strongly evocative throughout, an invaluable aid to realizing time and mood. Although the characters mostly speak a language that isn't English, we hear everything in our native tongue; but we're always aware what the pilot can understand and what he can't, and also what the others can't as well—indeed the inherent difficulty of unimpeded communication, not to mention our apparent resistance to it, is an important theme throughout the play.
The cast is superb. Anchoring the piece is Aaron Staton as the omnipresent pilot, very convincingly telegraphing all of the authentic suffering, fearfulness, and occasional joy of this young man, who is so dramatically in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's a rich, human performance, and all the more remarkable in that the pilot has very little actual dialogue.
Anjali Bhimani is radiant and inspiring as the farmer's daughter Evie who desperately wants to save him and be saved by him. Equally captivating is Rita Wolf as her mother, a stolid, pragmatic survivor representative of all the mothers of children sacrificed to endless war. Waleed F. Zuaiter is enormously effective as the Captain, letting us see the nagging doubts and bitter losses that he must daily confront as he makes decisions that affect his entire community; would that all of America's leaders were as thoughtful and as forthright. Geoffrey Arend, Ron Domingo, and Yusef Bulos are equally compelling as the interpreter, farmer, and trader, respectively.
After The American Pilot's stunning and shattering ending, my companion and I spent hours talking about the rich and revealing ideas contained in the play: for me, the measure of any theatre is how much it makes me think about what it means to be a human being and a citizen of the world. The American Pilot transcends contemporary politics and issues to get to the root of those very problems.