On Wednesday, 17 November, my friend Diana and I saw a performance of Arthur Kopit’s Wings at Second Stage on West 43rd Street. The story of a former aviatrix recovering from a stroke was first produced on Broadway in 1979 (after a run at Yale Rep and then the Kennedy Center in Washington); it was nominated for a best-play Tony and won a best-actress Tony for its star, Constance Cummings. Originally written for Earplay, the radio drama branch of NPR, in 1976, this is the first revival of Wings in New York City (if you don’t count a 1993 musical adaptation at the Public). Shortly before Kopit wrote the play, his father had suffered a stroke and lost his speech. In one of the father’s speech-therapy sessions, Kopit met a woman with aphasia, the inability to express aloud what you think. She’d been a wing-walker in aerial shows in the 1920s, and the playwright turned her into Emily Stilson, the woman in Wings who expresses Kopit’s thoughts about his father’s stroke.
Now, I should make a confession here. Jan Maxwell, the actress who plays Emily at 2ST, is married to an actor I’ve known since my days attempting to be an actor and director in New York. I don’t know Maxwell really, though we met years ago, but I acted with Rob Lunney (he was Rob Emmet back then) twice (Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth) and I directed him twice (two new plays, Comes the Happy Hour! by Ken Greenberg and Neal Thompson’s The Gift). I haven’t had much contact with Rob now for several years, aside from exchanging holiday cards, but I used to go to his showcases and readings when he told me about them, and I thought he was one of the best undiscovered actors I ever knew; I still do. Not that Maxwell needs my championship—she does quite well on her own, having been tapped twice this year for Tonys (Royal Family and Lend Me a Tenor), as well as several other Broadway and Off-Broadway awards in recent years.
Wings is a short play, running only 65 minutes, but Kopit sees it as an adventure story. In the early days of flying, people like Emily—Saint-Exupéry, Lindbergh, Earhart—were discovering a new life, a new world. It was risky, Kopit saw; they were “leaving land and might never see it again.” The pilots were figuring out how to do this thing while they were doing it—no one had ever done before what they were doing; there were no rules, no instruction manuals. They were all on their own:
The experiences in the early days when you lost radio contact and you didn't know where you were flying. It's about flying blind and loving it. It's the thrill of something terrifying, but doing it anyway.
I think Kopit saw Emily’s (and his father’s) learning how to speak again, to name the things they knew, to express in speech what they thought, as the same kind of discovery. Aphasics know things: their thoughts, though jumbled, work. They just can’t say what they think. (Aphasics can read and write, but they can’t say the words they can think. The speech center of the brain and the thought center have been disconnected.) They have to learn all over again how to talk—to make new pathways between the parts of the brain, a new map. To Kopit, that was like learning to fly, learning to be free of the earth.
As far as the production itself goes, there are two things to talk about as far as I’m concerned. One is Kopit’s script and the other is Jan Maxwell’s performance. Little else is of note, including the design (there’s no set to speak of—what there is was designed by Scott Pask—though there are projections, designed by Peter Nigrini; costumes, designed by Ann Hould-Ward; lighting, by Jane Cox; and sound, by Bray Poor, who also composed the original music—all effective and apt) and even the direction (by John Doyle, who‘s done more interesting and challenging work elsewhere). I’m not sure which element it’s best to start with, or if it makes a difference which I write about first, so I’ll just take a shot in the dark and go with Kopit’s play.
There are two things I spotted right off. First, the play’s roots as a radio drama are clear and unavoidable. Second, it’s also understandable why no theater here has revived the play in 31 years. As for the latter, I raise the three questions dramaturgs are supposed to ask when advising an artistic director on selections for a season: Why this play? Why here? Why now? I don’t have the answers to any of those. There’s nothing in Wings that creates a driving need to restage the play: it says nothing particular about this time or this society as far as I can see. (Though I haven’t seen the current revival of Angels in America yet—I’ll see it next month—I did see the original production and I can see several prominent reasons to bring that play back just now. I’ll save that discussion for my report on Angels, but some points have already been raised in the press when the revival opened at the Signature Theatre earlier this season.) When Diana asked me how I’d justify producing Wings now, I told her that I wouldn’t be able to. My only guess is that someone connected to the production just wanted to do it—maybe Maxwell really wanted to do the role, coming off several very successful comedies, and someone at 2ST indulged her, or the director had wanted to stage it, or someone in the theater’s administration likes it and wanted to produce it; I have no idea, of course, but I can’t come up with any objective reason to do Wings at this time in New York. Even as an allegory for facing unknown challenges—Kopit’s adventure story, as I understand him—it doesn’t really tell us anything about life in these United States (or these five boroughs) that isn’t awfully obvious.
As a play derived from a radio drama, there’s almost no action in Wings. To fill the gap, Doyle uses a lot of projections which often flash frenetically across the set, sometimes leaving a general impression—confusion being the principal one, the most salient emotion Emily Stilson feels, especially at the beginning—often leaving only the sense of incoherently flickering light and blaring sounds in the semidarkness. In the play’s 65 minutes, Emily progresses from almost abject incomprehension as she awakens from her stroke to the ability to remember and imagine a particularly significant, and frightening, incident in her early piloting days. But the progress is played out in such a short span that the struggle we know must have occurred is only sketched in and the small triumph I think she’s supposed to experience at the end is only asserted, not experienced. The two conditions aren’t alike, I know, but I was put in mind of the 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in which Jean-Dominique Bauby suffers from locked-in syndrome (also as the result of a stroke) and we experience along with him the fight to gain some ability to express himself to those outside his interior world. Wings works like Julian Schnabel’s movie if you remove all the middle scenes and went from the first few days of discovering the situation to the final moments.
Whatever its merits as a play, the script offers what Variety called “a juicy role for an actress,” and Maxwell does a fine job with the technically challenging part. (There’s a special acknowledgment in the program for the National Aphasia Association, which I presume provided guidance on the symptoms of the condition.) Ben Brantley in his New York Times review and Frank Scheck in the New York Post both objected that Maxwell is—“dare I presume?—too young” to play Emily who, according to the script, is in her late 70s (as she’d have to be in a play written in 1976 to have been a wing-walker in the early days of aviation), but in the end it’s not terribly important. (Neither the program nor the script specify when the play is set, though the nurses’ uniforms put it sometime before the 1990s, I’d estimate—whenever they stopped wearing those little white butterfly caps.) First of all, Maxwell takes control of both the play and the character right away, so there’s little time to find fault with the actress’s age. Further, there’s nothing in the play or the production that would contradict the assumption that it’s set in the ‘50s or early ‘60s—in which case, Emily could be as young as 45 or 50 (which is about where I presume Maxwell is since Rob’s a little younger than I am), so it was of little concern to me.
What did concern me is that, as strong an actress as Maxwell is (and all the reviewers praised her body of work in lavish terms), there’s little she could do apparently to bring more to this part than technical virtuosity. Maybe Doyle held her back or steered her wrong, but I couldn’t find much reason to root for Emily, to empathize with her, to feel her sense of being adrift up in the sky somewhere, flying blind and out of radio contact, as Kopit said. She speaks gibberish (which Marilyn Stasio in Daily Variety said comes close to poetry and which sounded Dickensian to Scott Brown in New York, but which is more like Lewis Carroll to me) and flounders when she can’t connect a thought to a word, and it all seemed quite correct, as the Brits say—but without life, without the emotional extremes that I gather made Constance Cummings’s rendition (which I didn’t see on stage, but only in the 1983 American Playhouse adaptation on PBS) worth the Tony. We’re supposed to be witnessing Emily’s plight through her own eyes, but instead of feeling as if I were there with her as I might be with a loved one, I was in an observation room, watching through a two-way mirror. It’s not that Maxwell doesn’t do a good job—she does; it’s just that, for me anyway, the part doesn’t really connect much on its own, and a “good job” just doesn’t cut it. TV is a cooler medium than the stage, so I can only imagine how hot Cummings’s live performance was—and maybe her age (late 60s) did lend an additional level of credibility and vulnerability to the performance as well—but I just couldn’t get into this play or this production.
I have one final observation to make; I saved it till the end because I’m not sure how relevant it is. Or how universal. It’s something I’ve often felt at plays like Wings, plays drawn from an experience very close to the playwright’s life. Kopit wrote Wings in response to his father’s stroke, which I assume was a devastating occurrence in their lives. Arthur Miller wrote After the Fall in response to the break-up of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. Carol Burnett’s Hollywood Arms was about the support she got from her beloved grandmother. I always get the feeling that the playwrights had to write those kinds of works to come to terms with whatever it is from their lives with which they needed to contend so they could move on. The problem is, I don’t necessarily need to see that effort. Wings seems to be an example of that situation—Kopit needed to write it, but I’d rather he hadn’t inflicted it on me. I have the same reaction when a news show sticks cameras and mics into the faces of a bereaved family and makes me privy to their intimate grief. I don’t want to be there: it’s none of my business and it should be private. But maybe that’s just me.
[I recommend reading Marilyn Stasio’s Daily Variety review (26 October) for anyone interested in a well-crafted analysis of the play’s structure, which I didn’t attempt here. (Several of the published reviews leaned a little heavy on the aviator diction and the flying puns: “Fliers grounded by reality” from Joe Dziemianowicz in the Daily News was one, and Brown’s “Wings Soars With Jan Maxwell” was especially overwrought.)
[It’s entirely irrelevant to this report, but a fun fact anyway: I have a photo of my mother as a little girl of 11 or 12, standing next to Amelia Earhart. It’s dated 1935, about two years before the famous aviator disappeared, and according to Mom, the picture was taken at some kind of fair in New Jersey, where my mother then lived, and there was an air show—or maybe Earhart just made a celebrity appearance.]