In our current age of PC backlash by both sides of the morality coin, it is worth mentioning that it is still largely inappropriate to make fun of disease. Thanks to liberal doses of progressive thinking, we as a society thankfully no longer blame sickness on sin or witchcraft. However, we still maintain this almost religious reverence for the infirm. So what’s a critical thinker in this day and age to do with a play that’s technically accurate in it’s depiction of a stroke victim yet falls spectacularly short on entertainment value?
In Theater Latte Da’s Wings, Janis Hardy stars as Emily Stilson, a retired airplane daredevil who suffers a severe stroke and falls headfirst into a bizarre, nonsensical dreamland straight out of a Lewis Carroll novel. The sound of Stilson’s favorite swing song slows down and distorts as literally everything comes unglued. Stilson’s sense of reality and identity are under constant attack as she begins to imagine she is now stuck in Hades or perhaps held captive by evil communists in Soviet-controlled Romania.
Wings is an operatic musical based on the play of the same name by Arthur Kopit. Kopit wrote his play as a cathartic response to watching his father slowly die of a stroke in the late 1970’s. Kopit spent nearly two more years in the same hospital after the death to gather more field research on what really goes on in victim’s heads. The attention to detail is readily apparent here but, unfortunately, the same zeal for pleasing a crowd is sadly lacking. The title of this misguided but well-meaning musical refers to Stilson’s former career with her family as wingwalkers for county fairs.
According to the American Stroke Association, every year, 600,000 Americans suffer strokes of differing magnitudes. Of those, 400,000 are new cases. Moreover, of those that survive the ordeal, a fraction of those endure the double whammy of developing aphasia (the loss of ability to understand or express speech, brought on by brain damage). Stilson’s character is, unlike the vast majority of stroke survivors, physically unscathed by the experience save for the aphasia prognosis. That explains why Hardy appears here looking more like a befuddled drama coach from White Bear Lake than someone who just suffered a life-threatening medical complication.
Hardy, a voice professor at St. Olaf College, undeniably brings some much-needed compassion to the title role, but there is no character depth to back up her performance. One can certainly empathize with Stilson’s abject horror and mounting paranoia that accompany the loss of being able to communicate with the outside world. Nevertheless, we never grasp enough of Stilson’s past in order to understand what she lost in the first place. We vaguely understand that she has a family back home that cares about her a great deal and that her nurse and the other patients are supportive of what she is going through. However, since none of the other minor roles goes past perfunctory plot devices, we have no real reason to care if she gets better or not.
The other members of the modest cast are undoubtedly talented vocally, due to extensive time spent in various local opera houses. In spite of that, one would venture to say the vast majority of the audience is not going to drive home all aglow recalling their favorite line from, say, an extended number about reremembering how to pronounce the phrase “cheap.” Admittedly, even heavyweight lyricists like Rogers and Hammerstein would struggle with subject matter as emotionally charged as this.
Furthermore, fake walls move around at such a meaninglessly frenetic pace that one is oft-reminded of the surreal nightmare sequences from the 1985 film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Harsh red lighting and aneurysm-inducing sound design caused the five-year-old seated in front of me to cower under her chair and I almost felt inclined to join her.
Produced in conjunction with Theatre Latte Da and the American Stroke Association, it should be duly recognized that the matinee performance I attended was followed by a tearfully grateful standing ovation. Attendees, with demographics pointing almost exclusively to either stroke survivors or affected loved ones, welcomed the nontraditional musical with open arms, as it appeared to help tremendously with the grieving process.