Mary Zimmerman’s most striking talent is her ability to relate the arcane currency of mythology to the quotidian pains and pleasures of regular life. That’s why the Chi director’s Tony-winning “Metamorphoses” was such balm to New Yorkers in 2001. The relatively obscure European fairy tales behind the slighter “Secret in the Wings” are not exactly of Ovidian oomph. And there are some forced moments within its 90 minutes. But the frame of this appealing — and potentially commercially viable — show is nonetheless of hypnotic appeal.
Despite the fanciful theatrical language, “Secret in the Trees” confronts the complex fears of childhood with striking immediacy. The first scene in particular offers a jolt. We see parents tell their young daughter (the splendid Heidi Stillman) that she is to be left alone with a neighbor. She points out that he’s a monster with a tail. They laugh and leave.
And then the sweaty, lumbering fellow (played by the splendidly oafish Tony Fitzpatrick) appears — replete with actual tail — ambling down Dan Ostling’s long staircase into the kid’s nightmares and her reality. In the kid’s eyes, the neighbor is indeed a monster — albeit one who likes to tell tales. He spends the night spooking the kid at the same time he’s entertaining her with an interlocking series of stories. It’s at once sweet and scary, silly and poignant.
Told from a child’s point of view, “The Secret in the Wings” actually is a remounting of a simple show first staged more than a decade ago, when the Lookingglass ensemble (now nationally known for its association with David Schwimmer) was just another impoverished, post-collegiate Chi troupe right out of Northwestern U. In the intervening years, fortunes changed drastically for this company, which now occupies a spiffy new city-subsidized theater inside the historic Water Tower Pumping Station right on Chi’s tony Michigan Avenue.
For this staging, Zimmerman worked again with her current design team of Ostling, Mara Blumenfeld (costumes) and T.J. Gerckens (lighting).
“The Secret in the Wings” weaves together several fairy tales. Zimmerman intertwines the narratives so each tale is left at the climactic point of disaster — only to be later resolved. The show is weakest during those resolutions — partly because the piece gets further away from the touching framework. The production gets too lost in the fairy tales, when we want more of the tension of fantasy intruding on reality.
The highly talented and emotionally resonant cast are all reprising their roles — and this sense of reunion and rediscovery adds to the show’s heft and appeal. That said, not all members of the group are still right for their roles. There’s a lot of lovely music in the show and these actors are, for the most part, not exactly legit singers. Should the show have a future life, it could go in many different casting directions.