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A CurtainUp Review

What a strange adventure I'm having — Emily
Jan Maxwell
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Let me make it absolutely clear that Arthur Kopit's play about the cerebral malfunctioning of a stroke victim is in no way depressing. But neither did it interest or exhilarate audiences enough when it premiered on Broadway in 1979 to keep it going for more than three months, although it did garner a Tony nomination for Best Play. Its star Constance Cummings, however, did win the Best Actress Tony. A musical version by Jeffrey Lunden (music) and Arthur Perlman (book and lyrics) showed up briefly in 1993 at the Public Theatre.

My own feeling is that a great performance should not be missed. It should be noted that Cummings played the central r role of Emily Stilson, a long retired stunt aviatrix, as much older (the script says in her late seventies) than does Jan Maxwell (not a day over forty) in the current revival, at the Second Stage Theater under the purposefully pretentious direction of John Doyle.

Although Wings is curiously uplifting, it is also entirely calculated to manipulate our patience as it delves into Emily's splintered mind, a mind that simply went awry while she was sitting quietly one day reading a book. We see Emily as she becomes painfully aware of what is happening and we hear what she does: the sounds of rescue, the ambulance, the medics trying to get her to respond, etc.

The play doesn't spend too much of its time on the progress of rehabilitation which is treated merely as a conduit into Emily's past. It is primarily concerned with bringing us directly into the reality that exists within her impaired intellectual functions. For a while Emily believes she has crashed in Romania, imagines she has been captured, and that the enemy is interrogating her.

I can only imagine the preparation and study that Maxwell has done to connect Emily's internal dialogue with the half-realized projection of it from her captured mind. Maxwell, who has been lauded in recent seasons for one remarkable and award-worthy performance after another (The Royal Family, Lend Me a Tenor, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) may have found herself a role in which she is impaired by speech and mental dysfunction, but certainly not by her ability to create a role defined and empowered by its strength and resilience. How challenging and rewarding for her, and for us, to be part of Emily's rampant and rambunctious thinking even as that thinking doesn't always step out beyond the limitations of her fragmented memories and her present awareness ("I'm mad. Everything I speak is wrong.")

The impressive visuals that set designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Jane Cox have created help establish a place that is both real and unreal, but is still essentially different areas of a hospital. It is decidedly otherworldly made more so by the manual movement by the doctors and nurses of many metal and mirrored room dividers on casters. Except for Amy (January LaVoy) an understanding therapist, we are observing the care given to Emily by a mainly robotic hospital staff.

During an amusing and diverting rehabilitation session, another stroke victim Billy (Teagle F. Bougere), an ex-baker from New Jersey digresses about the glories of cheese cake. But the play's most touching scene occurs as Amy and Emily take a walk outside and Emily rediscovers snow.

First and foremost this is Maxwell's show. It is she who completely embodies both the fearless woman who once danced on the wings of planes and the distressed woman who suddenly finds herself lost in the clouds.

Wings by Arthur Kopit Directed by John Doyle

Cast: Jan Maxwell (Emily Stilson), January LaVoy (Amy), Michael Warner (Doctor One), Adam Heller (Doctor Two/Mr. Brownstein), Anne L. Nathan (Nurse One), Beth Dixon (Nurse Two/Mrs. Timmins), Teagle f. Bougere (Billy/Attendant).
Set Design: Scott Pask
Costume Design: Ann Hould-Ward)
Lighting Design: Jane Cox
Original Music and Sound Design: Bray Poor
Projection Design: Peter Nigrini
Running Time: 1 hour 5 minutes no intermission
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street (212) 246 - 4422
Tickets: $75.00
Performances Tuesday - Friday (varies between 7 PM some 8 PM, check with theatre), Saturday at 8 PM, Matinees Wed and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday matinee at 3 PM.
Previews began 10/05/10
Opened 10/24/10
Ends 11/21/10
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/27/10
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