Arthur Kopit’s 1978 play, directed by John Doyle in a visually and emotionally stirring revival at Second Stage, is a rather expressionist American drama with an emotional resonance that seems even more relevant now, when we know so much more about how accidents of the brain can affect cognition and expression.
In Kopit’s vivid one-act, Mrs. Emily Stilson suffers a stroke in the play’s first moments. As we watch, the book she’s reading, comfortable in her quiet solitude, tumbles to the ground as her brain suffers its sudden, inexplicable trauma. The rest of the 90-minute production charts her way back to language and to life from her perspective, representing a newly rearranged world in which what she thinks she’s saying isn’t necessarily what people hear and vice versa.
Kopit’s text calls for imagistic enactments of the character’s ordeal, rather than realistic depictions, since the play concerns is what it feels like to suffer a neurological event that so profoundly compromises a person’s ability to express herself or to make sense of what’s being communicated. In her masterful, moving performance, the consummate performer Jan Maxwell delivers Emily Stilson’s experience with haunting, moving precision, delivering her garbled words with the conviction that she and her interlocutors know exactly what she’s saying. The devastating sadness of understanding that she’s a perfectly intact mind trapped in a body that can’t communicate makes Stilson’s situation wrenching, and Maxwell’s empathetic, dignified portrayal riveting to watch.
Doyle is the perfect interpreter for Kopit’s play, adept as he is in the kinds of schematic stagings that distill a work to its emotional core with sharply drawn visual metaphors. His reconceptualized productions of Sweeney Todd and Company, both mounted on Broadway within the last several years, cut those Sondheim musicals to the bone of their edgy meanings, presenting Sweeney as a Grand Guignol of bloodlust and an incisive critique of social power, and Company as full of the animating resentments of heterosexual imperatives.
Likewise, with Wings, Doyle sees in the center of Kopit’s play a universal struggle to communicate from the isolation of our individual subjectivities. All we know of Emily Stilson is present in how she sits reading peacefully in her chair at the outset, her blue silk shirt and black pants gracing her middle-aged, comfortable body, her shoulder-length blonde hair falling onto her forehead as she turns the pages. Although her posture, stance, and costume don’t change throughout, Maxwell demonstrates by how she reacts to what’s happened to her the tragic consequences of losing a connection to others and to the world. Her emotional response is both subtle and deep as she struggles to reclaim language, to make herself understood beyond her humiliating objectification by doctors and nurses who with all good will but inevitable condescension, try to reach her after what they call her “accident.”
In this era of debates about health care, hospice care, and end-of-life treatment, and when we know that if you catch a stroke early, you can treat it with medication that forestalls the worst of its consequences, Stilson becomes a universal representation of patient-hood, in which the subject becomes diminished by the very medical establishment that wants to restore her to full health.
When the stroke attacks, Maxwell sits alone center stage on a simple black chair, lit with a sharply delineated spot that begins the symphony of light Jane Cox designs so beautifully to accompany and illustrate Emily’s journey. As Emily feels her brain waves veer out of control, the upstage wall is washed with projections (designed by Peter Nigrini) that represent exploding veins and wayward blood seeping over her cortex. Although they’re imaginative rather than graphic, the projections provoke the illusion of a brain bathed in a riot of uncontrolled, intruding electricity and fluid. The disorientations of these images concretize Emily’s pain and confusion. Occasionally, the shadow of a face is projected above her, as voices ask if she can hear them, if she knows her name, if she knows the year or the president. Doyle and his designers use the stage to emblematize the ravages of a stroke. The visual field becomes expressionistic, an insurgency of uncontrollable neurological events too over-stimulating for a coherent emotional response.
When Emily begins to sense her surroundings, she can feel that she’s not alone in the room whose dimensions she can barely perceive at the edges of her consciousness. In her attempt to narrativize what’s happened to her, she tells herself (and the audience, to whom she speaks directly throughout) that she’s been captured, dropped behind enemy lines among people who want information from her. She regards the doctors and nurses who swarm around her warily, refusing to respond to their questions or feeding them misinformation. She hears herself speaking clearly; they hear garbled speech or mis-chosen words through the aphasia that short-circuits her communication.
Doyle and set designer Scott Pask open metals slats in the back wall, like a stage-wide, two-level, vertical Venetian blind, to reveal the blindingly white-clothed medical personnel and their machines, who are choreographed in a frantic dance that swirls around Emily. They push mirrored steel panels and tables ahead and behind them to surround and frame their patient. Their chaotic activity externalizes what she sees and feels as she strives to understand. That the mirrored panels at times reflect the watching audience only underlines that the spectator’s work resembles Emily’s, as we all try to make meaning of what we see and hear, while we’re manipulated by forces beyond our control.
As Emily gains more command over her words and her ability to communicate, the production’s pace calms to the sometimes maddening speed to which Emily must slow down her speech and her thoughts as she tries to re-marshal her vocabulary and her ability to create sentences. Her speech therapist, Amy (January LaVoy) is a precise, controlled young woman, about whom we know nothing. All we see is her presentation of guarded warmth, presumably from Emily’s point of view. Although she figures more prominently in Emily’s recovery, Amy, like all the other characters, is schematic and two-dimensional, a pleasant, bland figure whose only purpose is to help Emily heal.
Wings is a play about language, about how precarious is our ability to communicate. Kopit and Doyle clarify that without communication, an individual’s solitude becomes unbearable. Wings’ group therapy scene, in which stroke victims at various stages of rehabilitation come together to practice speaking, is one of its more excruciating, as four very well-intentioned and otherwise capable people try to say what they mean and only come up with close approximations of words or imperfect substitutes.
The most capable among them is Billy, a chef who’s baked Amy a cheesecake and teases her about paying him for it. But even in his more adept framings, his words stop short of perfect sense, leaving holes he can’t navigate that demonstrate how even the smallest miscommunications devastate our ability to interact successfully. That each of the therapy group’s participants can recognize one another’s mistakes but can do so little to correct their own is the session’s wrenching illustration.
All Kopit’s script shares of Emily Stilson’s past is that she was a wing-walker, a stunt pilot who flew airplanes and walked out on their wings in mid-air. She remembers for the audience the exhilaration of flying, of feeling the air across her face and sensing the admiring crowd down below, who were unaware of the tether that held her to the plane. She describes grasping the steel cables she used to keep her balance, as the plane circled and banked, turning her topsy-turvy. On the plane’s wings, Emily is free, accomplished, and alone in her feats of daring but supported by the crowd she feels below her. Her soaring solo independence provides a poignant counterpart to her dismal earth-bound solitariness post-stroke. As the play moves her between these two poles, her fear, solitude, and brokenness become that much more heart-breaking.
Maxwell never asks the audience to pity Emily, even as she delivers such a precise and moving portrait of her dilemma. The performance feels almost private, so adept is she at creating what is indeed Emily’s capture by forces well out of her control. Maxwell’s masterful performance anchors the production, and Doyle’s sense of style and the images he carves from space and time flesh out what’s really a picture of a very private experience.
Exactly that challenge could make or break a production of Wings, as the play’s action is confined to a woman’s reconstruction of her own subjectivity and her ability to stand fully within it. The narrative has little shape or trajectory; that is, Emily moves from profound trauma to a semblance of “normal” life, but the play’s end even throws into doubt the fullness of her recovery. The play holds little suspense; the other characters are two-dimensional diagrams of the people-effects who now populate Emily’s world. Much of the dialogue is Emily’s ruminations about what’s happened to her, or her slowly reestablishing reminiscences about her past, about the stuff and substance of who she was and may or may not be again. The images are keen and poignant, but much of the language is gibberish, as Emily and her fellow stroke victims try to work through their aphasia.
I felt tense throughout the preview performance I saw on October 9, 2010, not sure if the audience felt as gripped as I did by the painful determination of an accomplished woman struck down through no fault of her own. In fact, two-thirds of the way through the performance, two men left their seats in the second or third row and rudely crossed in front of the stage apron to leave the theatre, directly in front of Maxwell and the other actors. Theirs seemed a bold statement of displeasure, one I worried other spectators shared.
But at the curtain call, people cheered for Maxwell and the cast, rising to their feet to applaud her sensitive, moving portrait of an experience we all know could someday be ours. Her dignity and strength, her persistence even from within her sadness, her willingness to probe her own vulnerability as a corollary to Emily’s own, all provide a remarkable experience of theatre as a distillation of a life.
The Feminist Spectator