The aviation daredevils of the 1920s and 1930s forms the backdrop for Wings, the latest musical production from Firehouse Theatre. Emily Stilson, a former wing walker who defied death on the wings of a biplane, faces both her mortality and an accompanying language disorder after suffering a stroke.
Kerrigan Sullivan directs the work, adapted from Arthur Kopit’s 1978 play, with a novel visual approach to reflect the fracture between Emily’s mental and physical state.
“We’re exploring this sort of fractured mind, and that was just really, really fascinating to me,” Sullivan said. The performance uses a constantly shifting set, with music and visual changes that mirror Emily’s struggle to recover her voice.
The work takes place in two worlds, depicting both the physical facility that Emily recovers in and the vivid mental space where she relives the daredevil feats of her life as an aviatrix.
“One of the biggest things that I want people to take away is to see that there are other pathways to connection, even when you feel like you are leaving something behind,” Sullivan said. “You are moving toward something, and not necessarily away from it.”
Emily is played by Richmond actress Bianca Bryan. Performing alongside Bryan is Lauren Elens, Landon Nagel, Andrew Colletti, and Lucinda McDermott.
Elens said that with a cast that small they wear a lot of different hats. “We’re all part of the set. We create the environments with our bodies and our voices. The five of us have to really be on our toes.”
As Amy, Emily’s clinical psychologist, Elens is Emily’s connection to her new world, overseeing her from the start of her stroke to her social rehabilitation. “She treats Emily like a human being, not a case study,” Elens said. “It’s about finding that humanity.”
“The biggest thing I’ve taken away from this process so far is whenever my cast comes to talk about different scenes, everyone has a personal attachment to someone in their lives that they’ve lost along the way,” Elens said. “Wings does such a great job of finding all the glorious things that the human brain can do, and all the things that can tear your heart out.”
Though the entire cast is crucial in shaping the on-stage universe, the world of the play is seen through Emily’s eyes.
“It’s a chamber musical,” Bryan said. “It’s telling this huge story but in a very tight, intense, intimate way. It’s almost like you step in as a part of the world.”
The audience sees the stage as Emily does. The voices of doctors, nurses, and Emily herself are sometimes incomprehensible gibberish. The set shifts and fractures, and even the musical refrain reflects the brokenness, beginning as a disjointed overture. It is the world through the lens of someone else’s experience, one that is vastly affected by a tragedy beyond her control.
“It’s an interesting way to see it, because musical theater is so presentational, a way of being able to distance yourself from it a little bit, but it’s inevitable, the story is going to suck you in,” Bryan said. “To think this woman was basically cheating death her whole life, and now she’s had this stroke. It’s her story of how she’s coming to terms with death.”
The play touches on many issues, but Bryan said the most important theme was communication.
“Everyone will have something they can relate to. But I think the whole theme is really just the need and the want to communicate. [Emily] is not able to [communicate] because her speech is impaired and she can’t break across this barrier…I think it’s really just about making that human connection,” Bryan said. “There’s such a level of distraction in our society, but this breaks it down to the core…just communication.”
Firehouse’s community engagement manager Dave Timberline said Wings is a great way to start a conversation. In fact, he is using the production as a launching point to talk about strokes, aphasia, and theater production through Firehouse Forum, which supplements the onstage activity at Firehouse with a wide variety of additional programming.
“I think that this is something that you won’t often see on stage,” Sullivan said. “This is really something different, both in the way the story is told through music and the way that it’s presented on stage. This is going to be something that you don’t want to miss.”
Wings opened at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 15, and runs through March 10. Tickets are $20 which you can purchase here.