Music Defeats Emotion in Staging of `Wings'

WINGS Musical drama with music by Jeffrey Lunden. Book and lyrics by Arthur Perlman. At the Joseph Papp Public Theater.

ARTHUR KOPIT'S play "Wings," which played on Broadway over a decade ago, is not a likely choice for musical adaptation. The story of an older woman (a former aviatrix and wing-walker, hence the title) who falls victim to a stroke, it uses disorienting and alienating theatrical techniques to convey her agony and frustration as she struggles to recover. The play was a powerful and moving experience but a difficult one for audiences to endure.

This production, which premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, is a collaboration between Arthur Perlman (book and lyrics) and Jeffrey Lunden (music). What these two have essentially succeeded in doing is making a strange theatrical experience even stranger. Lunden's operatic music is moody and atmospheric, but there seems little reason for it.

In the play, Emily (Linda Stephens) is rendered virtually speechless; she cannot find the words to express what she means. In the musical, although she suffers from the same dysfunction, she is able to express her emotions while she is singing. The effect, presumably meant to bring us closer to the character, actually distances us because of its use of stylization.

The best parts of the work make vividly clear the disorientation that Emily is feeling. This is achieved largely through Richard Woodbury's nightmarish sound design, which features garbled noises coming at us from all sides of the auditorium; Robert Christen's hallucinatory lighting design; and Linda Buchanan's abstract scenic design, which includes numerous, scattered visual projections, and horizontal wires strung across the stage a la Richard Foreman.

Jeffrey Lunden's score uses a variety of musical themes that are strung together in disassociated fragments in an attempt to create a musical equivalent to Emily's mental state. It is an accomplished and at times evocative score that, despite its quality, feels redundant. Arthur Perlman's lyrics run the gamut from abstract word groupings to more conventional lyrics, as Emily's mental condition improves. Michael Maggio's direction keeps the disparate elements of the production running smoothly and seamles sly.

Linda Stephens's performance is truly transcendent. (The role will be played at certain performances by Rita Gardner.) The actress has the double chore of delineating her character's mental debilitation and singing the difficult score. She handles both assignments with a grace and power that makes us acutely feel Emily's plight. Although supported by a four-member cast (William Brown, Ora Jones, Ross Lehman, and Hollis Resnik), Ms. Stephens practically makes the evening into a one-woman show. But her eff orts are not able to lift what is essentially an intellectual exercise into a meaningful emotional experience. Music is supposed to enhance emotion; in "Wings" it defeats it.

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