Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: "Wings"

This compelling production and Ann Crumb's chilling performance transfix our gaze long enough to render something beautiful out of tragedy, says critic Jim Rutter.

Review: "Wings"

By Jim Rutter

Opera depicts tragedy. American musicals, for the most part, show sappy, silly stories of young lovers stumbling through courtship.

Composer Jeffrey Lunden’s and writer Arthur Perlman’s musical adaptation of Arthur Kopit’s play Wings
— now in a heartbreaking production at the Media Theatre — takes a different tack by starting with the tragic to recount a remarkable story of resilience and recovery.

Former aviatrix Emily (Ann Crumb) has suffered a stroke. She wakes up in a hospital, her mental clarity intact but with little ability to transform her thoughts into speech.

Addressed by a doctor and nurses as if she were a child, she vents her frustration. Most of her journey takes place internally as she struggles to recognize her children, regain her mental faculties, and return to normal life. As I said, darker fare.

Crumb’s dusky soprano pulls the lyrics from the recesses of her damaged consciousness, where agony lingers in muted syllables and garbled words. Her acting equals her singing; she flails a hand against a thigh and cocks her head from side to side as she struggles through simple sentences. And yet, when speaking or singing in the echo chamber of her mind, her voice sparkles with lucidity and a beauty that inverts the horror of her condition.

Lunden’s operatic score contains few melodies, and as Crumb sang one tortured tune after another, the audience didn’t seem to know whether or when to applaud. They should have screamed — I sat rapt, mesmerized by Crumb’s performance.

Under Jesse Cline’s admirable direction, this chamber musical fills the Media’s large stage. A series of shifting panels form both the institutional health-care bureaucracy and the damaged labyrinth of Emily’s mind. Troy Martin O’Shea’s lighting shrouds the stage in an early fog and brightens only in step with the progress of Emily’s mental recovery. Cline’s commitment to the subject matter never wavers; he recognizes the power of this dark, near-tragic tale and refuses to inject undeserved moments of sentiment or false hope.

And why should he? People suffer strokes; Kopit’s father recovered from one and inspired the original play. If it is the job of theater to hold up a mirror, then once in a while that reflection must render the grotesque. In Wings, the Media offers us an opportunity: If we are not afraid to look, this compelling production and Crumb’s chilling performance will transfix our gaze long enough to render something beautiful out of tragedy.

Through Feb. 26 at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State St., Media. Tickets: $44-$49. 610-891-0100 or

About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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