Seven months after Arthur Kopit's father suffered a stroke, National Public Radio commissioned the author of Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad to write a play for NPR's Earplay series. While Kopit longed for a deeper understanding of his father's altered state -- "To what extent was he still intact? To what extent was he aware of what had befallen him? What was it like inside?" he wonders in his 1978 preface to the piece -- the dramatist knew he couldn't deal directly with his father's specific situation.
Deciding instead to focus on two patients he met at his dad's rehabilitation center, Kopit crafted a series of surreal episodes that revolve around a former aviatrix and wingwalker's post-stroke experiences. Encouraged to adapt his aural experiment for the stage, Kopit subsequently added a number of visual effects that transformed Wings into a symphonic explosion of light, sound and poetry -- and a Tony-winning Broadway play. Propelled by Terry Dodd's masterful direction and Martha Greenberg's superb portrayal of the central role of Mrs. Stilson, the Aurora Fox Theatre Company's production proves a mesmerizing account of one woman's struggle to find her place in a strange yet achingly familiar world.
Aided by Charles Dean Packard's eerie lighting design and El Armstrong's unobtrusive sound effects, Dodd orchestrates the entire 75-minute work as a quasi-cinematic sequence in which doctors, children, aviators and fellow patients (all adroitly played by an ensemble of seven performers) step in and out of Mrs. Stilson's life with disarming dimensionality. Indeed, shortly after the "Catastrophe," as Kopit titles the first of the play's three parts, Mrs. Stilson gropes about a bluish, echoing void until, without warning, she's surrounded by a garrison of white-coated clinicians who cradle their clipboards with robotic fiendishness. Harshly lit and now seated in a gray metal chair at the edge of the stage, Greenberg cracks open her eyes and haltingly declares, "Now I understand; they've got me!" Suddenly, as if a surgical instrument has been plunged into our collective cortex, the aged woman's dreamlike dilemma becomes agonizingly real.
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Aurora Fox Theatre, 9900 East Colfax Avenue
Through March 25
In fact, whether she's trying to comprehend the staccato non sequiturs barked out by the hospital staff during "Awakening" or making an effort to piece out her own imperfections during the ultimately gratifying "Explorations," Greenberg maintains an iron grip on Mrs. Stilson's bedeviled wonderment. From the moment she tries to form a few sounds after the "accident," as she refers to her stroke, Greenberg invests her aphasic speech, which is a surprisingly lyrical mix of the unintelligible and the colloquial, with profound meaning. She responds to basic questions from her doctors (such as "Who was the first president of the United States?") with matter-of-fact answers while allowing a look of faint desperation to creep across her countenance; she punctuates the simplest of phrases with half-heard intakes of breath that signal her increasing frustration with being taken for a dotty old fool; and during one particularly harrowing moment, howls with primal rage after protesting, "Something has been done to me!"
Near play's end, when she's emboldened by her therapist, Amy (sensitively played by Martha Harmon Pardee), to reenact a flight of fancy that doubles as an out-of-body experience, Greenberg, backed up by a single line of performers in vintage aviator dress, describes her journey as if she had been magically freed to devote half her being to earthly cares and the other to heaven's delights: "I head out into darkness, all in terror," she murmurs. "God, but it takes effort!" Like the rest of Dodd and company's marvelous paean to human communication, it's a moment that allows Kopit's play, rare in this age of overwrought confessionals and heavy-handed docudramas, to soar. -- Lillie