Thanks For The Memories

Living in shanties: Faye M. Price and James A. Williams in an Athol Fugard apartheid drama

Living in shanties: Faye M. Price and James A. Williams in an Athol Fugard apartheid drama

There is a great to-do made of sliding doors in the Theatre Latte Da production of Wings. The show boasts a fascinating set by Michael Hoover--it seems to be made of stainless steel and clouded glass, and it stretches back into the far distance like a long, sterile hallway, thanks to an ingenious use of forced perspective. It is here that we find this musical's main character, Emily Stilson (played by Janis Hardy), a former aviatrix and wingwalker, now struggling with a bewildering loss of language. She has suffered a massive stroke, which has rendered her aphasic. Words sound blurred to her ears as anonymous medical professionals wheel her down antiseptic hallways, asking forceful questions that she cannot understand.

The staging by Latte Da artistic director Peter Rothstein is, alas, the best thing about this musical. Having adapted a play by Arthur Kopit, this musical's creators, composer Jeffrey Lunden and lyricist Arthur Perlman, tell the story mostly through the unwieldy device of having Stilson relentlessly verbalize her condition in song. This is awkward: Why have a character who has lost her use of language express that experience in language? Meanwhile, details essential to the character, such as her experiences as an aviatrix, are maddeningly vague--Stilson herself only remembers them toward the end of the play, and then only as a dream of flight.

Kopit is quoted in the play's program talking of his own father's stroke, and the experience of searching the now silent man for signs of the personality he once possessed. Hardy's Stilson is likewise strangely devoid of any but the most general details of personality. She is genial and has a self-effacing smile and, as her ability to speak returns, a tendency to rush through sentences, rendering them meaningless. Beyond that there doesn't seem to be any trace of the fearless wingwalker she once was. Hardy is a skilled but unremarkable singer, and the music, which is oftentimes very pretty--performed with offstage piano, clarinet, flute, and cello--tends to get lost. Yet as poignant a metaphor as it might seem to have the musical's songs waft along the production's bleak walls as more confusing language, it turns out to be deadly for an audience. We need something to mean something; it is too frustrating to inhabit a world without any details at all.

So let us look to the world of Boesman and Lena at the Pillsbury House Theatre. Athol Fugard's play takes a minutely detailed look at the experiences of two colored indigents plodding along the mud flats of the river Swartkops in South Africa, circa 1976. The physical details of their world could not be more carefully detailed, from the way the relentlessly verbal Lena tries (and fails) to construct a timeline of the events of her own life to her equanimity at Boesman's sullen abuse. The two title characters are played by James A. Williams and Faye M. Price, and this is not the first time they have walked these mud flats; both worked on a 1983 production of the show at the Park Square Theatre. When Boesman sets up a makeshift shanty and Lena builds a fire in a half-buried steel drum, they seem to be performing acts made intuitive by repetition.

And it is in the exactness of these details that Fugard's play builds its central metaphor--that these itinerant characters are as much the refuse of South Africa's then-white elite as the garbage that litters the riverfront. It is a potent argument Fugard makes, made even more so by his ambivalence toward his characters. Neither Lena nor Boesman is in any way heroic: Price's Lena is so desperate for companionship that she will dote on anything that staggers into her makeshift camp; Williams's Boesman is a heavy-lidded monster of a man, either shouting threats at his companion or tormenting her for her lack of memory. It is a terrible world they share, but a precise one, vivid even in Lena's tendency to count the bruises that ring her body. As we grow to be familiar with Swartkops's mud flats, it is these terrible details that build to tragedy.