Someone clip these Wings. Originally on Broadway in 1979, when it was nominated for a Tony and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Wings is being revived in New York at the off-Broadway Second Stage Theatre. While it was apparently well received in its initial Broadway outing, I found it to be tedious, too long at only an hour and totally worthless to me as an audience member.
The structure of Wings allows the audience to figure out and experience what is happening to Emily Stilson (Jan Maxwell), our protagonist, along with her. This is an interesting directing choice, and while I didn’t find the material at all engaging or compelling this was an effective way to tell the story.
The story itself though - the play - was nearly unbearable. I was so fidgety throughout the whole thing that one hour felt like an eternity. The beginning, during which Emily is having a stroke, is basically a cacophony of caterwauls - not exactly a pleasant way to being a play or hook your audience. As the stroke begins to subside and Emily is trying to figure out what’s happening, she too loudly begins spouting out blank verse gibberish. Since I had no idea what was going on - it was only about half-way through the play that Emily figures it out so that’s when we figure it out - I couldn’t appreciate the storytelling method and simply felt like there was an assault on my senses taking place. Once Emily understands what’s happened, the tone of the play shifts. The second half is Emily in speech therapy, trying to re-learn how to go from knowing a word in your head to being able to say it out loud.
I stayed for a post performance discussion with the playwright, Arthur Kopit, and director, John Doyle. (The talkback was more engaging than the play.) It was during this talkback that Mr. Doyle (an accomplished director who staged, among many other works, a terrific revival of Company, starring Raul Esparza) said he found the material to be a great challenge and that’s what interested him. It was also during this talkback that Mr. Kopit spoke of his inspiration for the play - his father had had a stroke and was in speech therapy. Both of these reasons are great ones to create something but they did nothing for me as an audience member.
You may know by now that I think theatre (or movies or TV, etc.,) can sometimes be purely entertaining; sometimes they can have a message; sometimes they can be a combination. Wings wasn’t either of those things. There was no entertainment. There was no message. Therefore, there was no value. I fully support Mr. Kopit writing as a means of dealing with what’s happening in his life - as a means of expressing himself - but I don’t need to sit in a theatre and watch it.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of the talkback, though, was when Mr. Kopit was talking about this production and the way it was staged. There really wasn’t a set, in the traditional sense. Just some chairs, movable dividers and constantly shifting verticals lining the stage. When an audience member commented that, despite the sparse set, she was able to fully picture Emily’s world, Mr. Kopit remarked that his and Mr. Doyle’s approach could be summed up thusly: The abstraction makes it more real. I couldn’t stop ruminating on this thought and I agree.
With the abstract, you’re not told what to think but rather what to think about. You’re not told, “this is a chair, this is a table and this is the wallpaper.” Instead, you’re told, “there is a chair, there is a table and there is wallpaper.” Your imagination - and projections - fill in the rest, making it more real for you. That’s what I like about abstract art. And I think this approach can be extremely effective. Unfortunately, given this thoroughly un-engaging story, my imagination just never took flight and Wings remained grounded.