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Spirit in the Sky

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WINGS

Goodman Studio Theatre

Either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or . . . there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. --from Plato's Symposium

"What she described was a world of fragments," writes Arthur Kopit in the introduction to his play Wings, speaking of a woman who had suffered a stroke and later devoted herself to a career as a therapist helping others with stroke-related aphasia. "[It was] a world without dimension, a world where time meant nothing constant, and from which there seemed no method of escape. She thought she had either gone mad or been captured by an enemy for purposes she could not fathom. . . . She wondered if perhaps she was dreaming. Sometimes the thought occurred to her that she was dead."

Kopit wrote this play, first presented at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1978 and mounted on Broadway the following year (ironically, given its subject matter, the coproducer was Claus von Bulow), in response to his father's stroke, which rendered him incapable of speaking. Prompted to translate the experience into a play, Kopit drew not only on his father's case but on the examples of two women patients in the same hospital--one of whom had been a stuntwoman whose specialty was walking on the wings of propellor planes--and on the recollections of the formerly aphasic therapist. The result, Kopit emphasizes in his preface, is a play "essentially about language disorder and its implications."

But the core of Wings's appeal is nothing so specialized or clinical; it is instead the very nature of human existence. As Kopit's heroine, stroke victim Emily Stilson, tries to make her way back to normal health, she explores a strange new world that seems to liberate her through its very disconnectedness to the physical dimension her body inhabits. And while the peculiarities of Emily's case make for intriguing viewing, Wings's deeper and more lasting resonances come from our preoccupation with the link between sense and spirit, body and soul.

The extraordinary chamber musical Arthur Perlman and Jeffrey Lunden have created based on Kopit's play unlocks the subtext of their source, speaking directly and eloquently to the play's underlying metaphysical concerns. Those concerns are also revealed by the nearly messianic passion of Linda Stephens's gripping performance as Emily--she makes us almost literally see her aura soaring free of her body--and by the beauty of Lunden's complex score, with its unusual mixture of ethereal texture and rich melody, and the clarity of Perlman's lyrics, which pay heed to formal concerns like meter and rhyme while remaining the credible expression of a woman groping for words. But mostly those concerns are revealed by director Michael Maggio's staging, often astonishingly fluid as it washes away traditional perceptions of spatial dimension to create Emily's surreal universe. From the moment the elderly Emily's well-ordered (and, we suspect, rather boring) life is transformed by her stroke, Maggio and his top-flight creative team--costumer Birgit Rattenborg Wise, set and projections designer Linda Buchanan, lighting designer Robert Christen, and sound designer Richard Woodbury--immerse the audience in the soul-sky in which Emily soars, facing her brave new adventure.

In Wings the only real world is Emily's. Her memory so affected that she can't even recognize her children, Emily has no more connection to the earthly life that has preoccupied her for 70-some years. She establishes a friendly link with a fellow patient--Billy (sensitively played by Ross Lehman), a baker who ironically cannot say the word "eat"--and a loving one with the therapist Amy (a compassionate Hollis Resnik, whose resemblance to Stephens underscores the surrogate mother-daughter nature of their relationship). Amy tries to restore her subjects to normality with structured jam sessions--one very funny scene finds the group trying to bang out "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." But these people have little real hold on Emily, and their attentiveness seems slightly absurd to her--and is made flat-out ridiculous in the show's main comic number, in which a warmly overbearing nurse (a hilarious Ora Jones) tries to ply Emily with food while singing nonsensical variations on the word "yummy." From the beginning, Wings dispenses with any suspense about whether Emily will get well or not; it's not that we know the outcome but that the transcendant nature of the experience eliminates our concern about it.

This almost blithe belief in the primacy of the spiritual over the physical world is Wings' most provocative element--and I suspect it will trouble more than a few viewers, who will want the show's airborne heroine to come down to earth. But Lunden and Perlman's Wings makes no apologies; Emily's stroke is the occasion for them to open doors of perception and inquire into realms far beyond science or logic. Having walked on the wings of planes, Emily Stilson now journeys along new planes of existence; her adventure is terrifying, breathtaking, and finally ecstatic.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.

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