Arthur Kopit’s 1978 play, “Wings,” is essentially a stream-of-consciousness monologue, the lyrical howl of a woman — a former pilot and daredevil who walked on the wings of airborne planes — struggling to make sense of a debilitating stroke. In other words, a juicy role for an actress. In this Second Stage revival helmed by John Doyle, that plum part goes to the ever-radiant Jan Maxwell, hot as can be from recent Broadway appearances in “The Royal Family” and “Lend Me a Tenor,” but not entirely suitable for this demanding role.
Written in response to his own father’s stroke, Kopit’s play is also something of a silent dialogue between the traumatized stroke victim and those helpless survivors trying to make contact with her fugitive mind. When language breaks down, a condition of aphasia that occurs during the initial brain trauma, all coherence is lost and the feelings of chaos are mutual. If Emily Stilson (Maxwell) is exhausted by her efforts to comprehend her own broken thoughts and fractured speech, so, too, is the audience.
In Doyle’s staging, the pandemonium raging in Mrs. Stilson’s brain is reflected both aurally and visually. Sonic blasts of sound (the work of music and sound designer Bray Poor) sweep the stage, eerily like the roar of the wind that Mrs. Stilson must have heard in her days as a wing-walker. Peter Nigrini supplies visual cacophony by projecting bursts of color-shifting shapes on the vertical blinds of Scott Pask’s paneled set.
An explosion has gone off in Mrs. Stilson’s head and shards of language and memory lie scattered in the debris. Gradually, she recovers consciousness, only to discover a frightening disconnection between the thoughts in her mind and the gibberish coming out of her mouth — a foreign tongue that Kopit renders in an idiom that on occasion approaches poetry.
For all the verbal velocity of its streaking thoughts, the play is structurally well-grounded in three movements that cover the two years of Mrs. Stilson’s ordeal as stroke victim and recovering patient: “Catastrophe,” which is set in a hospital and captures her profound isolation in the aftermath of the stroke; “Awakening,” which finds her slowly piecing herself back together in a rehabilitative institution; and “Explorations,” the most realistic section, which shows her growing responsiveness in group therapy sessions and in private moments with a sympathetic therapist named Amy (woodenly played by January LaVoy).
Mrs. Stilson is actually rebuilding her own character in these three sequences, but Maxwell doesn’t really come to life until mid-way through the second movement, when Mrs. Stilson becomes caught up in the memories and sensations of her former career as a wing-walker. Maxwell is an extraordinarily vibrant performer whose megawatt smile could guide lost ships into port, and she’s truly in her element up there on the wings of Mrs. Stilson’s plane. The star also responds to the character’s recovered sense of humor, which erupts in flashes during therapy.
But in the early sections of the play when the strong-willed Mrs. Stilson finds herself in emotional extremis — in the state of pure panic and utter terror that made Constance Cummings’ memorable performance so electrifying in the original production — the best Maxwell can do is confusion and dismay. Sadly, it’s not enough.