BWW Review: WINGS THE MUSICAL at Firehouse Theatre Pensively Soars

BWW Review: WINGS THE MUSICAL at Firehouse Theatre Pensively Soars

By Brent Deekens

WINGS THE MUSICAL is the intricate musical adaptation of Arthur Kopit's (somewhat) esoteric play by librettist-lyricist Arthur Perlman and composer Jeffrey Lunden. The piece is a first-person character study of Emily Stilson, an aviatrix and wing-walker, and her recovery from an enervating stroke and her consequent complications involving the language-based disorder known as aphasia.

A challenging piece in terms of dramatic structure, character development and music, it's to the benefit of the Firehouse's audience that we're ably serviced by their impeccable cast and production team.

As stated in my previous article on this particular production: this is a seldom-produced piece. In its artistic maneuver to counterbalance the open-aired visualizations of flight to the confining suffocation that is mental impairment, this shifting spectacle is a wild and oftentimes ambiguous ride.

Having already been graciously given the opportunity to see this stellar production in its preview stages, my riveted curiosity into the show's medical underpinnings was further enthralled by the post show talkback conducted after the March 1st performance. The talkback was moderated by Firehouse's Community Engagement Manager David Timberline; it featured members of the cast, director Kerrigan Sullivan, musical director Kim Fox, and the welcomed guest appearance of Speech-Language Pathologist Dr. Woodford Beach, PHD, CCC/SLP.

Dr. Beach specializes in the inculcation of aphasia patients with the reassessment and (hopeful) restoration of their cognitive and physical wherewithal towards the proper application of their verbal communication. In the play, Emily Stilson (immaculately played by songbird Bianca Bryan) is likewise coached by her speech therapist and central caregiver, Amy (played by Lauren Elens with equal parts heart and authority, not to mention her own strong set of vocal chops).

"English is suddenly taken away from them," said Dr. Beach regarding victims of aphasia. "Our goal is to promote language to the best of the person's abilities so that they can carry on with their lives."

The play itself, written in 1978, shows a bit of age in regards to the marginal hospital practices and concomitant treatments of the time. The (deliberate) stock characters of Nurse (Lucinda McDermott) and Doctor (Andrew Colletti) are cold and sometimes derisory.

"Today, we want them to be treated like a person, not a patient," reaffirmed Dr. Beach. A welcomed prospect.

Dr. Beach went on to detail the advancing medical treatments applied to stroke victims today. Such practices include a tissue plasminogen applicator (tPA) which can aid in the breaking down of blood clots; the use a surgical thrombectomy to remove a clot entirely was also mentioned. Dr. Beach also stressed the importance of time sensitivity in the variable treatment of any stroke victim.

"1.9 million neurons per minute are lost during a stroke," warned Dr. Beach.

Dr. Beach was also adamant that as a stroke is occurring, friends, family or even strangers in close proximity to the sufferer need to "B.E. F.A.S.T." - pay close attention to the victim's Balance, Eyes, Face, Arms, Speech and Time (Google "B.E. F.A.S.T" and "Stroke" for further reading).

Authenticity and respect towards actual aphasia patients were crucial components in the cast's research given their sometimes anguished-looking mannerisms (McDermott and Colletti also double as hospital patients with completely credible enactments). Other cast members affectionately evoked the manifold mental trials of a few cherished loved ones.

This commendable level of conscientiousness was lauded by Jan Thomas, leader of the RVA Aphasia Group ( Having viewed the show on a previous evening, Ms. Thomas, on behalf of other members in attendance, sent a highly encouraging email to the cast and crew of WINGS; Landon Nagel (Billy) went on to share it with the audience. Ms. Thomas applauded the WINGS team for their reverent accomplishment, a work which brought her to grateful tears.

"This is why we do what we do," quipped Nagel as he brandished his smartphone wherein the email was displayed. Nagel, incidentally, provides the cheeriest number in the show: a song about cheesecake!

Apart from Sullivan's inventive staging (flanked by state manager Danya Cooper and dramaturgy by Chelsea Radigan), the creative team includes sublime vocal coaching by Stephen Rudlin, an unforgettable, career-high light design by Bill Miller, a simple but eye-catching set by Vinnie Gonzalez, key sound cues from Jason "Blue" Herbert, and a versatile, three-piece orchestra composed of Fox, Maddie Erskine, and Taylor Bendus.

Textually speaking, the play may be abstruse to some, especially given how most of it is sung-through. I even took it upon myself to purchase a copy of Arthur Kopit's original play to better connect with some of the work's more disjointed moments... to which was (and still is) entirely the point!

Like in so many works of fiction, arguably for the benefit of a mass audience, stories are often told from an outsider's perspective looking in on something obscure or spottily documented.

That is not the case here. Kopit, Perlman, and Lunden wrote WINGS from an insider's perspective - Emily's - trying ever so desperately to look out! And her perspective is dashed - having been made fragmented and oblique! Therefore it came of little surprise to me that the original play, somewhat light on dialogue but discursive on sound effects and stage direction, read much like a work by Samuel Beckett - ACT WITHOUTS WORDS, perhaps (an interesting comparison given that, according to David Timberline in a one-on-one addendum with me after the talkback, Samuel Beckett's last poem entitled "What Is The Word?" was written for a friend and fellow playwright, Joseph Chaikin, a man who also suffered from aphasia).

In closing, WINGS is best to be taken in with an open mind with fervent deference to the elusive constitution that is the human brain. As such, audiences should be further stimulated by the fact that, immediately following the performance on March 8th, Jeffrey Lunden, the composer of WINGS, will be at the Firehouse as part of his own talkback session. I encourage all who haven't attended to purchase their tickets for March 8th without delay.

WINGS THE MUSICAL plays at the Firehouse Theatre through Saturday, March 10th.

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From This Author Brent Deekens

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