This was my first time at Apple Tree.
Well, my second time, really, if you count the curious interview I had there five years ago. But let’s not go there.
This time around, I got very lost, almost missing curtain time. Silly me went to the place I had my interview — the address listed on Google. And it was no longer there. In desperation, I asked a few friendly Highland Parkers, and they directed me around in a circle until I found the new home of Apple Tree —> down an unmarked road, behind a grocery store, tucked behind some trees.
Once safely inside (and warm!) with a minute to spare, I settled into my front row seat (well, there were actually only two rows) to see what Wings was all about.
No, it wasn’t that early 90s sitcom starring Steven Weber. It’s a musical based on the play by Arthur Kopit about Emily, a former aviatrix who suddenly suffers a debilitating stroke in her silver years which sends her into a spiral of confusion, anger, wonder, and rediscovery.
Jerry Lunden (music) and Arthur Perlman (Book and Lyrics) have composed an innovative and twisting score that captures the fragmented mental state of Emily’s condition. Emily has moments of clarity, which inspire arias about flying, flinging her arms out wide in open spaces, and rediscovering snow. I liked the score overall, but felt it was missing a little heart. It seemed too focused on relaying the effects of a stroke — more focused on how Emily is rather than who Emily is. There was also a throwaway scene/number about cheesecake (?) that seemed incongruous with the rest of the piece – merely a moment to allow the actress playing Emily to take a drink and rest her voice.
I gotta say what made this show for me was Mary Ernster. The score is complex, with strange intervals and tongue-twisting lyrics to reflect her jumbled verbal state. And then there were those soaring (pardon the pun) arias. Ernster handled every part of it masterfully. Her acting was just as powerful — so simple, touching and honest, bringing much-needed warmth and personality to the material. Her bio says she’s set to play Margaret Johnson in Marriot Theatre’s production of The Light in the Piazza this summer. I’m certain she’ll be fantastic. It’s a perfect fit.
Here’s the thing that I don’t like to share, but I will anyway. I really related to Emily’s situation. It made me recall that time three years ago when I suddenly lost the ability to speak or comprehend what I was being told for several hours. It was truly one of the scariest moments of my life. I teared up a little when Emily struggled to find words to speak or understand what she was being told. OK – enough about making it all about me.
Supporting cast was fine – with a standout performance from Anne Sheridan Smith as Amy, her caretaker/nurse. They share a great duet together, where Emily rediscovers snow.
The set was simple and effective – a requirement for any low-budget theater. Scrims served as a translucent wall between the actors and the audience during Emily’s imprisoned state directly following her stroke. The scrims were ripped away as she gained clarity of her condition and reclaimed moments of her past. The stage is painted to look as if a tiled floor is floating in space — as if to suggest her disjointed and disoriented state.
Music direction, an element that, from my experience, seems like an afterthought in many Chicago theaters, was on the good to very good side. Effective arrangements, strong musicians — aside from a somewhat clunky keyboardist.
Side note: Apple Tree has a thrust stage. Which means audience members sit across from each other. Which means if you sleep, I can see you. We can all see you. Even the actors, who are two feet away, can see you. STAY AT HOME IF YOU WANT TO SLEEP.
Also: Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune theater critic, sat behind me. Wonder what he thought?
Finally: Go support local theatre!