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Wings’ descends on audiences’ senses

Michelle Fordice | Monday, October 10, 2005

Under the direction of Mark Pilkinton, the Notre Dame Department of Film, Television, and Theatre’s presentation of Arthus Kopit’s “Wings” is an assault on the visual and audible senses that, though often difficult to understand, strongly depicts the feelings and thoughts of its main character, Emily Stilson.

“Wings” allows the audience to look into the mind of someone suffering through a stroke and its aftereffects. After her stroke, the elderly Stilson suffers from aphasia, the partial or total inability to produce and understand speech as a result of brain damage. She also suffers from confusion over where she is. She is bombarded with questions from doctors (“What is your name?” “Can a stone float on water?” “Can you show me what you do with this object?”)

She is left in a state of utter confusion as to where she is and what is happening, forgetting even her own name. Stilson returns to half-remembered parts of her past – times with a son whose name she cannot remember, her mother’s death, and most of all her life as a pilot and “wing-walker,” one of the men and women who would perform tricks on the wings of their bi-planes – in a desperate attempt to reclaim control over her reeling mind.

“Wings” opens with a very simple set consisting of no more than a recliner, table, clock and book. Throughout the play this simplicity is layered upon with light, sound and multiple sets to create a confusing storm of information that beautifully reflects Stilson’s own state of mind. Live dialogue is doubled with recordings, multiple sets of actors simultaneously depict the same characters in different places on stage and the stage is layered with curtains and red and white light. The play is divided into four parts, but it is hard to discern between them. The audience is denied an intermission, allowing the play to continue without break and envelop the watcher.

There is often so much going on that the audience has to work to understand what is happening. Though this complexity would be considered a negative aspect in most plays, it only serves to emphasize Stilson’s own struggles in “Wings.”

“Wings” does occasionally allow the audience a release from its depressing subject matter. There are a few humorous moments, such as when upon realizing no one understands her for the first time Stilson declares, “I’ve been put in with the deaf!” More importantly, sometimes Stilson does remember her past and often delights in her days of freedom in the skies. From the beginning, she claims that though “she doesn’t know how,” things “could be far worse.” Stilson and the other patients make slow advancements, often losing as much ground as they regain, but every once in awhile they take joy in recapturing the ability to say the words that we take for granted, from “cheap” to “congratulations.”

“Wings” ends abruptly and somewhat disjointed in its sentiments, reflecting the play’s flirtation with hope and courage, but ultimate groundings in reality. Mrs. Stilson flies off into the night, not safe but not scared, and the audience is left still questioning.

Though it depends on the audience constantly paying attention and trying to discern what is going on, the sensual assault of “Wings” successfully allows the watcher to glimpse into the mind of someone stuck in a state of confusion and loss, producing within the audience sympathy and understanding for the play’s protagonist.