By Jim Rutter
FOR THE INQUIRER
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 www.mediatheatre.org