WINGS, by Arthur Kopit, directed by Ken Albanese, with Nonnie Griffin, Claire Crawford, Brian Otto, Frank DeFrancesco and Miranda Reeves. Presented by Wally Dug Productions and Circle Theatre at the George Ignatieff Theatre (27 Devonshire). Runs to May 28, Thursday-Friday at 8 pm, Saturday 6 and 9 pm, matinees Thursday and Sunday 2 pm. $26, stu/srs $21, Sunday pwyc. 504-7529. Rating: NNN
How do you dramatize the inner life of a stroke victim?
American playwright Arthur Kopit tries, valiantly, in his 1979 play, which follows the life of a former aviatrix named Emily Stilson (Nonnie Griffin) as she suffers a stroke, loses her ability to speak and comprehend language and then is gradually helped by a speech therapist (Claire Crawford) to recognize words in all their philosophical grandeur.
Kopit originally wrote Wings for the radio, and the play still feels like a drama to be listened to rather than seen. True, director Ken Albanese initially uses various blinking kaleidoscopic lights to suggest the confusion happening in Emily's mind. And there is a set of sorts, to suggest things like hospitals, park benches and homes.
But essentially the show recounts -- with lots of sound effects, language play and voice-overs -- one woman's frightening journey through the crumbling corridors of her own memory.
Albanese's pacing is slack, and though the program notes tell us there are four distinct sections to the play, there's a lack of momentum that feels unintentional. Emily's aviatrix background also feels symbolically grafted on, with her quasi-lyrical passages about flying more a playwright's clumsy attempt at metaphor than a character's remembered history.
There's some fascinating philosophical pondering in the play that's like dramatized Oliver Sacks. We question, for instance, whether snow can be understood without feeling it.
But the play's chief asset is its bravura role for a senior actress, and Griffin offers a subtle, powerful performance that's centred in her furrowed eyebrows and frustrated, fearful eyes. She looks around her with disbelief, an exhausted survivor trying to maintain her dignity. Through her, the play almost achieves liftoff.