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STAGE REVIEW : ‘WINGS’ SOARS AT THE ODYSSEY

Times Theater Writer

Dramatic literature does not abound in plays so abstract that they offer a director and actors the chance to wrap its living membrane around a deeply personal interpretation. The specimens that do exist have had remarkable careers. One such is Arthur Kopit’s “Wings,” whose intense dramaturgy (sometimes too intense) traces the aftereffects of a stroke from the disoriented victim’s point of view.

Constance Cummings scored a personal triumph in “Wings” in the late ‘70s. And now a new production of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble promises to do as much for actress Barbara Bain.

Cummings created the demanding central role first at Yale, then at New York’s Public Theatre and finally on Broadway, where play and performance got thoroughly lost on the large Lyceum stage.

Intimacy, as the East Coast discovered, is essential to such an internalized landscape--and intimacy is what the small Odyssey II was born to provide.

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With the intelligent contributions of designers William Strom (lights), Brad R. Loman (scenery and costumes), Garrett Caine and Jeff Brown (sound), it also delivers plenty of atmosphere: sweeping curtains (that open and close on small compartments like cubicles of the brain), shrieking sirens, faceless doctors, whirring lights, all charting the terror of the event.

The heart of this play, however, lies with the person experiencing that terror: the acute dislocation and sheer havoc created by the devastation in the victim’s mind.

In Kopit’s play, that victim is Emily Stilson, a former stunt flyer found placidly spending a quiet evening at home when she’s stricken. This plunges her into a Grand Guignol world of incoherence peopled by strangers in white, where fragments of memory only rarely connect. Kopit, who wrote the play after his father had suffered a stroke, captures the panic and devastation with remarkable accuracy and surprising humor.

His use of stunt flying as a metaphor for this flight into the abyss, however, is rather more obvious and less successful.

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The real surprise is Bain. Most sharply remembered for her glamorous days on television’s “Mission Impossible,” she is astonishing, turning in an unflinching performance as the ravaged Emily: frightened, funny, brave and pathetic at once. It takes plenty of courage to so radically let go of all previous self-conceptions and embrace the ungainly demands of such an intricate character. She does it with a skill and intelligence that make “Mission Impossible” feel light years away. Yet shining through the non sequiturs and acquired frumpiness is a grace and natural elegance that will not be denied.

Beyond Bain, the production also illustrates the value of a good director to a potentially pretentious script. That director is Mark Travis, and he has not only kept the piece moving swiftly through the alternately alarming and humorous rapids of a disjointed mind, but he has steered the play clear of its major peril: a certain clinical sterility. “Wings” at the Odyssey is abidingly human and compassionate.

Dianne Turley Travis turns in a restrained yet deeply loving performance as the speech therapist who buoys and encourages Emily.

The well-chosen balance of the supporting company includes (in thankless roles) Oceana Marr, Peter Morris, Sharon Sumpter and Alan Woolf and (in more rewarding roles) Frank Smith, Tamar Cooper and the splendidly exuberant Alan Toy.

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