Sunday, October 10, 2010


Dorothy Silver flies to great heights in WINGS at Beck

Every once in a while a theatre-goer gets to experience a great actress in a great role. Such is the case with Dorothy Silver and her appearance in Arthur Kopit's WINGS, now on stage at the Beck Center.

It takes a fine director to choreograph the machinations of this script, as the action takes place entirely inside the head of Emily Stilson, who has a stroke while reading a book. We follow her through her frustration as her frozen body hears but cannot react. We watch as she fights valiantly to regain some semblance of herself, a vital woman who at one time was an aerial stunt artist who walked on the wings of flying airplanes (thus, the title of play). This is a play of high drama with some humorous undertones.

Kopit was commissioned to write a radio play for the National Public Radio drama project, Earplay. He had just gone through watching his father suffer a debilitating stroke. Going through that experience, and being privy to others in similar situations, inspired him to write a script using a combination of two women who were patients at the rehab center in which his father was experiencing psychological and physical therapy.

Arthur Kopit, who later adapted the radio script for the stage, describes the play as "a work of speculation informed by fact."

The play is divided into four sections: "Prelude," the moments before her first stroke; "Catastrophe," stay in an institution; "Awakening," a section dealing with her struggle to reorient and regain language skills; and "Explorations," where further therapy, including group sessions, and her reemergence to normality, are portrayed. The segments flow together and are presented in a 90-minute intermissionless format.

The play won the 1979 Tony Award for best play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play.

Director Sarah May laid out a clear flight path. She knows the subject, she understands the process used to work with stroke patients, and she has the imagination to take the printed word and create meaning and tension.

Dorothy Silver, the grande dame of Cleveland actresses, spellbinds the audience with her finely nuanced performance. Mrs. Silver's eyes convey constant meaning. Alert before the stroke, lifeless after the incident, filled with confusion as she fights to find reality, tearful with frustration, and, in the play’s climax her eyes shine with clarity as she sees the light. Incongruent laughter, shoulder shrugs, head tilts, nervous giggles, quivers of the voice, and slouched posture all add to Silver's fine-tuning of the characterization.

Though many think of WINGS as a one-person show, it is, in fact, a collective piece. Silver is supported by a fine cast (Derdriu Ring, Robert Hawkes, Anne McEvoy, Patrick Carroll, Rhoda Rosen, Bob Abelman, Danielle Shepherd and Jeremy Jenkins).

Don McBride's well conceived set design, a fragmentation of a wing, struts and contemporary metal sculpture, helps frame the action. Trad Burns' lighting concept leads us through the plunge into darkness, the murkiness of confusion, and then into the light with clarity of purpose. Richard Ingraham's complex sound design creates the illusions needed to take us in and out of Stilson's mind and her surroundings.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: WINGS, at Beck Center, is an absolute must see! This is a production that has a defined purpose and execution. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!