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By John Quinn
Posted: Feb. 9, 2013 at 11:49 p.m.
Joni Mitchell sang that line in "Big Yellow Taxi." Few things will hammer her observation home like the sudden onset of debilitation. In Arthur Kopit's poetic "Wings," stroke victim Emily Stilson ponders what's gone – independence, communication, fundamental balance.
Balance is key to understanding Emily's struggle with panic and paranoia in this compelling one act, performed by The University of Detroit Mercy Theatre Company. Emily had been a daredevil, a "wing walker," performing death-defying stunts on the upper wing of a biplane. The stroke paralyzes her right side and damages her speech center. Confined in a wheel chair, Emily has also developed "aphasia." She has lost the linkage between thought and speech. Her frustrating attempts to talk to her rehabilitation experts result in gibberish. Can she, to crib another line from pop music, "take these broken wings and learn to fly" – again?
Although "Wings" made Kopit a Pulitzer Prize finalist and garnered a Tony nomination in 1978, originally it was a radio play for the NPR drama project, "Earplay." That context illuminates this production's staging. Melinda Pasha's scenic design is stark, an empty stage upon which set pieces appear only when needed. It is backed by a reflective screen that reflects Rudy Schuepbach's somber mood lighting. The intimate scenes are played in pools of light, and the focus is literally on Emily, since she is onstage for almost the entire show. Also noteworthy is sound designer Mathew Lira's contribution. Not only is Emily's experience sparked by random noises and fragments of music, the sound track reflects her inner monologue, which is so different from what she can articulate.
It takes a rare actor to pull this complex performance together, and director David L. Regal turned to associate guest artist Melissa Beckwith. Without gesture or blocking available, she conveys emotion by subtle expression and convincing delivery of the verbal nonsense that is all Emily has left.
Her performance is striking.
The Theatre Company provides drama students with the opportunity to work with professional directors and associate guest artists. It's an advantage that should be seized for all it's worth. Because this was originally a radio play, scenes are justifiably static and voice is paramount in defining character. Given how pivotal Emily Stilson is, this is the opportunity for the supporting players to give us some unique characters. They need only follow the lead of the admirable Dr. Arthur J. Beer. In what amounts to a cameo as Mr. Brownstein, he projects a fully developed character while working under the burden of an assumed speech impediment. Beckwith and Beer, along with Joel Frazee, turn a long scene of speech therapy into a gentle comic gem.
"Wings" is a thought-provoking theatrical event, contemplation on the strength of the human spirit. In the end, the message is not, "be thankful for what you've got," but "where there's a will, there's a way." That's not a bad lesson to take away from the theater.
SHOW DETAILS: University of Detroit Mercy Theatre Company's production of "Wings" continues at Marygrove College Theatre, 8425 W. McNichols Road, Detroit, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday & 2 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 17. Running time: 80 minutes; no intermission. Tickets: $10-20. For information: 313-993-3270 or Theatre.UDMercy.edu.
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