In "Wings," which opened a four-week run last night at the Eisenhower, Arthur Kopit has created a dramatic experience which effectively achieves two contrasting tones. It is both clinical and theatrical and in the vital central role Constance Cummings is giving a penetrating, haunting performance.
A clock is ticking. On an easy chair a woman is reading a book. Quite graduallym she seems to clutch at herself. The clock stops, resumes.
Noises, Bustle. Lights flashing. Panels sliding. One sees through doors. Muffled voices penetrate our consciousnesses. And hers.
She is having a stroke. She has had a stroke. She seems to recover. She seems to have another stroke.
Kopit and this superlative actress, as well as a most ingenious production, take us inside the woman's mind. Unreality becomes blindingly real.
Gradually we learn something about this obviously intelligent, worldly woman. What comes floating into her mind most clearly is the youthful time of her life, when she was a young flier who used to walk out on wings of planes over the mobs who flocked to state fairs and air shows. She did a lot of subsequent flying, had her crashes and rugged landings.
This , is she feels, is more of the same, "What a dangerous adventure I'm having!" she exults, the half-dead hands raised in triumph.
The clinical observations seems authentic from what one reads of stroke victims or has observed at first hand. There is the powerless sense of hearing and being unable to respond. "I don't think she hears you," remarks one doctor to another. But she does. Does she know her name? No, she admits to her lonely self.
The experienced psychiatrist, Amy, views her torrent of unrelated words with smiling sympathy. "Talk slowly. Hear yourself," she advises. "Where do younget names from?" the woman asks, then thinks aloud: "Names will be there when I want them." The clouds seem to be lifting.
Under John Madden's direction, the imaginative production, with eight other players headed by Mary-Joan Negro as Amy, furthers the script in theatrical skills, Tom Schraeder's lighting and Tom Voegeli's sounds being masterly in craft and precision.
Being clinical and theatrical, "Wings" does however, avoid emotion and drama. What I assume to be cautiously purposeful omission militate against the ultimate effect and deprive us of that catharsis we expected when the experience commenced.
The avoidance of emotion is understandable for it would be almost too easy to move us in such circumstances. Yet, "The Miracle Worker" moves us tremendously, thanks to Annie Sullivan's confrontations with Helen Keller's parents, which made us understand the treatment but ingeniously used the moment when helen put together-taste and feel to locate the word "water."
Kopit never has been a writer consciously to use pure emotion. He seeks to quicken, alert our minds and one easily can imagine him decisively deciding against using emotion for the experience he seeks to define.
Nor does he seek to flesh out any dramatic reconstructions of past triumphs or failures. Mrs. Stilson has a son. She recalls Rhinebeck, the Hudson River town. With other patients she seems to be observant, not out-reaching. Surely, in her daredevil profession, she was an extrovert. We don't know. It's not used.
The result is that this experience does not ever become dramatic or emotionally alive. Fine, indeed superb as she is, Cumming has only two notes on which to pur her eloquence. This she does with extraordinary changes of rhythm, vocal and facial, all utterly, believable. Yet the emotional pull we should be feeling at the end of so bravura a performance is not there.
It may well be that this lack is not a failing at all, that it is precisely the tone and attitude Kopit sought to capture from an experience personally endured. His slant of mind seems to prefer clinical accuracy over emotional empathy. I admired "Wings" but could not warm to it.