Using theatrical techniques associated in the 1960s with plays about the anguish of mental illness, "Wings," Arthur Kopit's one-act play at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, explores the anguish of physical illness.
The stream of consciousness speeches and non-literal staging -- doctors bend over an empty bed on one part of the stage while the patient stands far away -- are suited to the agonies of an active and intelligent woman who is unable to speak coherently after suffering a stroke.
But we are not used to dealing in this style with acts of God, which leave us nothing and no one to blame. If this were about mental illness we would be comfortably provided with a wrong-doer -- if not a person, then the whole society, and if not society, then the mental institution. At the least, it is surprising to watch the doctors and nurses in this hospital setting behave with exemplary patience and kindness.
After the preview performance, a woman in the orchestra addressed the audience, saying, with a trace of speech difficulty similar to the heroine's, "I am three days from a mental institution, and I know how false both sides of this is given." We are so conditioned to the associations of this style that it was easy to see how she confused this hospital with hers, but it was difficult to believe that she was a genuine member of the audience rather than a latter-day Pirandello plant, such as we have come to expect in all those plays since the '60s that have used the identical techniques (such as having the curtain up when the audience enters, as this one does) with the expressed hope of "shaking" people out of their "complacency."
The picture of what it is to have a stroke is not false; it is superb journalism. The first warning comes when the victim is quietly reading a book. We know from the clock's erratic silences that her hearing has been momentarily blocked. She gives nonsense speeches with the cadences of an elegant and educated woman. It is eerily convincing. Constance Cummings is as perfect in her interpretation of the role as the script is in its interpretation of the situation.
Nevertheless, "Wings" has problems. The smallest of these is the way the symbolism of the stroke victim's profession -- she was an aviator who did stunt walking on airplane wings -- is milked. A bigger problem is the play's length -- it is more than adequate to cover the subject, but audiences are probably going to rebel against paying Kennedy Center prices for a play only an hour and ten minutes long.
The worst problem is a sad one to admit, and that is that even a fine study ofa common and tragic problem is not enough to fill an evening of theater. We are told what it is like to have a stroke, but there is no way in which we are taught to change our feelings about it. So we are left with the feeling of having done something that is worthy -- as one might feel after visiting a patient unable to converse -- but not personally enriched.