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BWW Review: Imagination Stage Premieres Beautiful and Enchanting WHEN SHE HAD WINGS

Susan Zeder's WHEN SHE HAD WINGS, now premiering at Imagination Stage as part of the city-wide Women's Voices Theater Festival, is one of those theatrical productions that isn't just one thing. Part history lesson, part argument for female empowerment, and part enticing family drama, the compelling and beautifully staged and acted production goes above and beyond your standard theatre for young audiences offering.

Beatrix (Maggie Wilder, offering up a perfect mix of childlike innocence and maturity), or "B" as she likes to be called, is on the cusp of turning ten and she's not particularly happy about reaching that double-digit milestone. She remembers a time, before she could walk, that she could fly just like her hero Amelia Earhart. She's very serious about her passion for all things aerial - a tree in her Nebraska backyard has even been transformed into her very own cockpit (designed by Luciana Stecconi). Now, things are weighing her down, family challenges and a personal struggle with weight among them. She realizes that the situation will become all the more complex and weighty as she gets older, hence the dread over an upcoming birthday.

Her dad (Ian Le Valley) tries to keep B happy in the time that he has to spend with her before she's shipped off to another camp - courtesy of her non-present, but apparently well-intentioned mother - for overweight kids. When a mysterious bird-like figure ("A," played creatively by Pamela Christian) enters her treasured cockpit after yet another Midwest windstorm, B becomes fascinated by her, especially the freedom she has to move wherever she wants, even upwards. Several clues convince B that A is really famed pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart in disguise. In exchange for helping A complete her last flight (she disappeared before it was finished and her body and plane were never recovered), A promises to help B fly and overcome that darned gravity. Is A really that Amelia, or is she too just a woman dealing with the challenges of moving on to another stage in life?

While it's true that the story deals with several weighty topics that might not be particularly ideal for the tiniest of Imagination Stage patrons, the production does offer elements that will appeal to pretty much everyone. The wonderment of flying is captured through live sound (courtesy of the multi-talented James Konicek) and innovative and highly theatrical visual effects, including lighting (Zachary Gilbert), puppetry, and clever movement (Andrea Moon) that borrows a bit from the acrobatics world. Pamela Christian, assisted by Konicek and fellow cast member Calvin McCullough, deserves special mention for making this creative acrobatic element happen in a seamless way, but the creative team deserves even more kudos for not letting technical spectacles overwhelm what is in essence a story about imagination. Even the tiniest of kids might revel in the stimulating and simply beautiful visual and aural enchantment the production offers.

Yet, the play isn't all fluff. History buffs and educators might revel in the story of Amelia Earhart, as told by a wannabee pilot. Those interested in family-based dramas or stories about the challenges and complexities of growing up female will find it here as well. Only one underdeveloped subplot involving an escape from a nursing home seems a bit out of place, even if it does relate to the general idea Zeder's script is concerned with - that of the growing challenges of moving to another stage in life. Still, adults might chortle at the HIPAA references.

Director Kathryn Chase Bryer and her talented cast bring out the best of Zeder's creative work and offer some must-see theatre for the young, old, and everyone in between.

Running Time: 65 minutes with no intermission.

WHEN SHE HAD WINGS plays at Imagination Stage - 4908 Auburn Avenue in Bethesda, MD - through November 1. For tickets, call the box office at 301-280-1660 or purchase them online.

Photo: Pamela Christian and Maggie Wilder pictured (left to right); by Noe Todorovich.

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From This Author Jennifer Perry