Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Heroine in "Wings" soars above illness

Cleveland Press March 1, 1980

Emily Stilson (June Gibbons) sits in a chair reading. A clock ticks loudly. A light shines on the clock.

The clock misses a beat and she looks startled for a moment, then turns back to her book. The sound again is altered. The light goes out, there is stillness and the book falls from hands.

Emily Stilson has suffered a stroke.

Arthur Kopit's "Wings," which opened at the Play House Euclid 77th Theater last night, is a complex play with a disarmingly simple look to it.

It is an examination of Emily Stilson from those first puzzling moments in the hospital, her perception that something is different through the terror of being separated and not understood.

But it is an.examination from the inside out most of the time, and from the outside in only occasionally.

She understands, she perceives so far as we can tell when we hear her speak her thoughts. It is when she tries to respond to the doctors and nurses that her speech is garbled, her thoughts seemingly muddled.

"Wings" is not clinical. It avoids the outward manifestations of Emily Stilson's stroke, concerns itself entirely with her consciousness, her thoughts, her inability to communicate.

When she enters the hospital, she remains seated in a chair near the front of the stage. Doctors and nurses work over a hospital table at stage rear behind a scrim. They try to communicate with her back there while she remains alone, or with us -- the audience.

This Separation of Emily Stilson is part of her point of view. At various times it becomes for her symbols of comfort, terror, loss.

As the play progresses we learn that she was once a flier, the barnstorming variety, whose specialty was wing walking.

Flight becomes a metaphor for her situation as the tries to soar above her restricted existence, to free her grounded thoughts because of her inability to speak.

The metaphor is fragmentary until the end when it takes over completely and she feels herself flying again. She is lost in the dark when she sees a lighted village, circles it wasting gasoline but unable to land because there is no place to put down, finally getting up the courage to go once more into the dark.

The monologue ends in an outward noise and in garbled speech. Apparently she has suffered another stroke, this one fatal.

Curiously, "Wings" is not a depressing play. There are moments of wit as when she tries to puzzle out where she is, concludes that she has been captured and puzzles over the strange questions she is asked.

"Can I raise my finger? To what use can that be to the enemy?" she muses.

The play becomes tender when it establishes a relationship between her and a therapist, Amy (Carol Schultz).

Carefully, slowly she is led through an understanding of simple things. And then, with an uncanny logic, she begins to question what everyone takes for granted.

She sees snow and is unable to give it a name. She asks Amy where she gets its name.

"In here," Amy replies, touching her head.

"Do you know how?"


"Then how am I supposed to know?"

It is the kind of illuminating moment that forces you to stop and wonder and perhaps to appreciate the miracle of communication.

The role of Emily Stilson is a performer's dream. June Gibbons makes the dream come true.

It is several characters, but all of them related. One of them is perfectly lucid. Another is terrified. Another speaks only in gibberish. Still another is like a questioning child.

It would be easy enough for an actress to establish each one separately, make each of them clearly different. But to do so would destroy the tenuous fabric of the play.

"Wings" is not about several personalities, but the several sides of one personality. June Gibbons' carefully articulated and sustained performance is one that recognizes that subtle difference.

Under Larry Tarrant's direction the company's performances matches the play's shifting, intricate moods. Aiding greatly is some complicated and well done work with sounds and lights.