Jan Maxwell in Wings
(© Joan Marcus)
Jan Maxwell in Wings
(© Joan Marcus)
A bravura performance from Jan Maxwell and a top-notch production by director John Doyle combine to make Arthur Kopit's 1978 play Wings, currently being revived at Second Stage Theatre, one of the first "must-see" productions of the fall.

Maxwell plays Emily Stilson, who, when audiences first meet her, sits quietly reading a book while a clock ticks in the background. Theatergoers quickly notice the irregularity of the sound, even if Emily doesn't, and when she finally does, there's nothing she can do about it. She is in the throes of a stroke that will induce aphasia.

It's during the attack that Doyle's production rivets audiences. Projection designer Peter Nigrini has created a nightmarish, abstract video filled with blood reds, deep purples and sickly yellows that engulfs the stage, while Bray Poor's impressive soundscape echoes cacophonously, filled with the disembodied voices of, what one assumes to be, concerned paramedics, nurses and doctors.

The medical professionals soon appear and with their entrance, Kopit's script takes on a frightening, surreal quality. Emily alternates between being completely lucid and speaking in gibberish. She also hallucinates and believes that she has somehow been captured and is being held in a farmhouse in Romania that has been made to look like a hospital.

Eventually, she emerges from this condition, and once Emily is out of danger, her difficult journey to regain use of language and her memory begins. She's aided by Amy (played with understated and almost beatific grace by January LaVoy), and slowly, Emily does indeed begin to return to a certain level of normalcy, even to the point that theatergoers realize that what had seemed to be part of her early stroke-induced illusions is indeed fact: in her youth, Emily was a famed wing-walker, defying gravity and thrilling audiences as planes swooped through the skies.

On many levels, Maxwell achieves a similar effect in her performance. Dressed simply in dark trousers and a blue blouse (costume design by Ann Hould-Ward), the actress navigates Kopit's script and its hairpin turns not only with finesse, but also with a level of emotional honesty, genuine warmth, and a modicum of subtle pride. In Maxwell's deft turn, intensely felt panic can give way to perfectly timed comedy (particularly when Emily believes to have become embroiled in some 1940s web of espionage intrigue). Emily's angry and frustration-filled outbursts are so raw and fiery, they threaten to blister audience members in the front rows.

And then, there's Emily's anguish, which is felt most keenly as she watches Billy, a fellow patient (an excellent Teagle Bougere), struggle in his recovery. Maxwell says nothing as Billy tries to find a word while in a group session with Amy, but the expressions that slowly cross the actress' face speak louder than any words, communicating the horror, fear and hopelessness that Emily feels as she realizes what she must sound like.

Perhaps what impresses most about Maxwell's performance is that it never panders for audiences' pity. Instead, it inspires theatergoers to cheer Emily on, soaring with fearlessness.