nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
October 21, 2010
Few things are more exciting to theatre lovers than the prospect of a very fine actor taking on a daunting role and performing it so exquisitely that it seems as natural as breathing. Such is the case with Jan Maxwell, delivering a 65-minute tour-de-force, with a great deal of skill and care, in John Doyle's revival of Arthur Kopit's brief 1978 drama Wings at Second Stage Theatre.
Maxwell plays Emily Stilson, a 1920s wing-walker recovering from a left side cerebral infarction that has largely impacted both her speech and her memory, with some side effects to her movement. Kopit's piece is set over a two year span, starting with her stroke, and taking us through her recovery period, where she not only learns how to speak again but how to remember those exciting, heavenly moments in the air, and her eventual demise.
Wings began its life as a radio drama in 1976, commissioned a few months after Kopit's father suffered a stroke. Emily Stilson is an amalgamation of women he encountered at his father's recovery center. The play was later revised for the stage and eventually had a short run on Broadway, where it was nominated for Best Play. Its lead actress, Constance Cummings, won a Tony. The piece was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Mrs. Stilson never leaves the stage, and Maxwell is thoroughly spellbinding as she delivers what is, essentially, an hour-long monologue, with a few scenes of dialogue here and there. With a single movement or arched eyebrow, Maxwell manages to convey exactly what she wants to say when her words fail, as they often do. We are a privileged audience of a master class, watching and listening to her dexterously weave her tongue through Kopit's twisty, stroke-gibberish-filled monologues.
There are other characters, too, though none has the impact that Mrs. Stilson does; then again, they are just passersby in her life. Most notable are Amy (a soft-spoken January LaVoy), one of the therapists, and Billy, a young patient, innocently played by Teagle F. Bougere. The rest of the cast includes Michael Warner and Adam Heller as the doctors, and Anne L. Nathan and Beth Dixon as nurses.
Evoking the eerieness of the great Twilight Zone episode "The Eye of the Beholder" designers Scott Pask (set), Anne Hould-Ward (costumes), Jane Cox (lighting), Bray Poor (sound), and Peter Nigrini (projections) create a world of black-and-white shadows and sounds, eventually giving way to more and more color and light. The opening moments, an exploding cacophony of sound and image, are the closest I think anyone can ever get to replicating on stage what must be happening during a stroke.
Doyle's staging is stark and mostly effective, except when it comes to the passage of time, clearly indicated in the script but never replicated on stage. The two year span is never fully realized, and Mrs. Stilson's recovery, the arc of the play, seems to happen in the blink of an eye.
But that's just one qualm, easily looked past thanks to Maxwell, who truly is a marvel to behold.