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Building Character: Jan Maxwell How playing a stroke victim in "Wings" is like a dirty knife fight

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
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Jan Maxwell has earned unanimous praise for her performance in Wings, Arthur Kopit's 1978 play about Emily Stilson, a former airplane stuntwoman who's struggling to recover from a stroke. In Second Stage Theatre's revival, the actress mostly speaks gibberish, except when she's living out the distorted fantasies in Emily's mind. She weeps, laughs, and screams, and though she has the most lines in the play, she almost never says anything that makes sense.

Her performance would be memorable in any context, but it's even more striking when you consider that just a few weeks before she entered Emily's fractured world, Maxwell was on Broadway in a farce. "It was a little bit of a 180," she says. "I was riding along with Lend Me A Tenor at the time I got the job, and I thought, 'Oh my God, memorizing this.' I had about three weeks off [between shows,] so I spent them walking around the Catskills just memorizing."

In a way, she memorized two plays. She notes, "I had to write the script beneath the script because I had to figure out what the gibberish was supposed to mean. If you just play 'gibberish,' then you're not doing anything. It doesn't mean anything."

Maxwell also visited several patients with aphasia, the speech disorder that afflicts Emily. "That's one of the reasons I took the role," she says. "I wanted to study aphasia and the brain. I find it fascinating. This play spoke to that side of me that is interested in science and the body."

Those patients (as well as other research) informed not only the physicality of Maxwell's performance, but also the emotional tone: "I don't find trauma a warming event or a fuzzy event," she says. "I find it a dirty knife fight in a dark back alley where you are screaming to survive."

That's a great way to describe the first ten minutes of the Second Stage revival, directed by John Doyle. Though the final scenes are focused and poignant, the opening unleashes chaos that reflects Emily's confusion in the immediate aftermath of her stroke. There are voices whispering from every speaker, other characters popping in and out, and mirrors spinning across the floor, reflecting light in all directions.

It's just as disorienting for Maxwell as it is for her character. "I truly get nauseated by it," she quips. "At one point, I had to tell the stage manager, 'You might want to have a bucket out here.'" Those early scenes are particularly challenging, she adds, because she has to both remember her disjointed lines and stay present in the moment of the play.

It isn't difficult, however, for Maxwell to stay connected to the other six actors in the cast, despite the fact that she's generally spouting nonsense at them. "Actually, it's easier to stay connected with them because that is the only focus of [Emily's] life, is to communicate," she says. "In this play, more than many others, my desire to communicate is incredibly heightened."

So just to review: That's a stroke, disorientation, intense communication, and a dirty knife fight. Not bad for a play that's barely seventy minutes long. Or as Maxwell says, "It's a very full hour." 

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor

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