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Unexpected Turbulence 

by Michael Bowen


In theatrical terms, Wings is an acid trip to an old folks' home. Do you have convalescent homes figured for sinkholes of decay and death? You think stroke victims are just sitting there lifelessly? By depicting trauma from the inside, Arthur Kopit's drama explodes our assumptions about the afflicted elderly.


While we're still settling into our seats -- while the elderly woman onstage seems content to settle with a good book into hers -- suddenly disorientation overwhelms us all. For the catastrophe of Emily Stilson's stroke, Kopit's script calls for all manner of unsettling lights and sound effects, and the Interplayers tech crew obliges. Gibberish litters entire speeches as Mrs. Stilson puzzles over her newfound language defects. Along with her other disconnections from reality, she has aphasia, the inability to select or comprehend words. Wings then straps us in tight and barnstorms through Mrs. Stilson's hallucinations until, like her, we're lost in the funhouse, too. It's unlike any Interplayers production in recent memory.


In her program notes, Director Robin Stanton details her experience of witnessing the play's opening night on Broadway, saying she hopes to dazzle audiences today in the same way she herself felt captivated at the Lyceum Theatre 23 years ago.


I've experienced My Own Private Wings, too: mid-'80s, small theater in West L.A., Barbara Bain (of Mission: Impossible fame) in the lead role. If memory serves, Bain's Mrs. Stilson was older, frailer, more frightened than Jane Fellows is here in Spokane. Fellows, however, conveys more of the character's wonder, curiosity and triumph. Bain's production benefited from an intimate space that intensified the experience. Interplayers has more room and (no doubt) more transistors and circuitry to play with: this production is more technically accomplished, with more of the "wow" factor. In nearly every way, the current show succeeds in delivering the kind of visceral shock that Stanton seeks. It's a superior show.


Well-directed, too. Stanton entraps Emily in squares of light to denote her sense of captivity, maneuvers actors behind screens so they can mimick Emily's arm-flailing, shines accusatory lights right in our faces.


In the central role, Jane Fellows complements the directing; she nails the kaleidoscope of impressions and emotions befuddling Emily. Fear contorts her face at outset, but soon she's hypothesizing that this hospital she's in is no hospital at all. She must be surrounded by spies. Time to take refuge in her thoughts. But her thoughts make no sense. What a strange new adventure. Exasperation alternates with wonder. At one point, confronted with a weird inability to do the simplest things, she exclaims, "This is really nuts, isn't it?" Notice that she's not bailing out; she's up for riding out this particular storm. Indeed, she relishes the discoveries, but she's also sadly aware of her decline and powerless to stop it. Fellows shows us these thoughts, fleeting across her face, never overplaying, always seizing opportunities to give us the woman in full.


Good as Fellows is in the central role, any production of Wings depends on theatrical magic. The Interplayers design team tasked with devising physical and aural equivalents for Mrs. Stilson's confusion, weaves enchantment. Heather Graff (who also plays one of the nurses) and Richard Peterson (who, like Graff, has worked with Stanton in Chicago) team up on lights and set design. Mirrored surfaces fracture light at odd angles. Carved wooden objects dangle from the ceiling -- one part biplane, one part window frame, a third part simply inexplicable. Strobe lights glare at the audience, directing accusations our way, implicating us in Mrs. Stilson's befuddlement.


Mark Stanton Cobb's sound design mixes noises both mundane and freakish, then scatters them all over the auditorium: we don't know what's coming next, or from where -- just like the woman whose disintegration we are witnessing. Shari Townsend contributes costumes that add to the effect: a houndstooth-pattern dress for Mrs. Stilson that blurs under the lights, and for those doctors scurrying about on their rounds, some unexpectedly green coats. Kimberly Crawley furnishes props like the fragmentary wings used in the more dream-like sequences.


Fellows may carry the show, but she's surrounded by deserving actors. Robert D. Heath, Jr., manages one of those transformations that make you rub your eyes and wonder if that could really be the same actor who was up there in a different role two minutes ago. Heath fully inhabits the quirkiness of Mr. Brownstein, an old German coot who shares Mrs. Stilson's defects but who has progressed cheerfully toward partial victory over them.


B.D. Freeman delivers comic relief as Billy, an aphasiac like Emily, still capable of laughing at himself even when he's most forgetful. Mrs. Stilson fights back against such frustration, too. But then, compared to Billy, she's older.


Near the end, just when Emily is progressing nicely toward recovery, she reverts to memories of her days as a solo pilot. She gets lost in the darkness somewhere over Omaha, and then it dawns on the audience -- on Emily, too -- that she doesn't have much navigating left to do. Home isn't far away.


The final image is of Emily Stilson bearing the ills she has, flying to others that she knows not of. Even in moments of ultimate trial, she's full of generosity for her companions and gratitude for her Creator. She soars on, ever the wing-walker, still flying after all these fears. For her, for us, it's a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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