There’s a not-so-secret code in Theater for Young Audiences (TYA) productions. Whether you’re a parent/guardian or just someone interested in theater, you might read the synopsis of a TYA production on a snazzy postcard or a painstakingly-crafted advertisement with the intention of maybe checking out the show, but you probably won’t decide to go until your eyes drift down to the all-important number, listed in bold at the end of the ad.
“Not for anyone under 12” tells you you’re in for something juicy and adolescent, much like a guilty pleasure dystopian YA novel. “Fun for ages 9-99!” indicates something dreaded: a saccharine, dragging affair that will rob you of 2 hours that you’ll never get back. Or it might say “Best for ages 5+” as it does on the ads for When She Had Wings, Imagination Stage’s brilliant entry into the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, which might signify something bright and exciting for grade-schoolers, but eye-rolling for anyone above their tweens.
But When She Had Wings breaks this code. Imagination Stage has mounted a visually stunning and profoundly multilayered story that can truly appeal to adults as easily as children. This is the story of Beatrix (B for short) who spends most of her time in a treehouse built to look like a classic propeller airplane where she pretends to be Amelia Earhart. Her escape is understandable, not just as an expression of childhood imagination, but because her home life is rough. Her father (the affable and charming Ian Le Valley) is doting and trying his best, but B (who gets a charming but sincere treatment from on-the-rise actress Maggie Wilder) is at the age where doting fathers inspire more embarrassment than ebullience. Her mother is literally absent from the play, and the only information the audience gets about her is that she wants to send (the certainly not fat) B to fat camp.
Complexity is the hallmark of When She Had Wings. What seems like simple imagination games carry intense significance. B chooses flight because, to her, flight signifies freedom and weightlessness while over-protection and her weight are primary conflicts with her parents. Playwright Susan Zeder has made a gorgeous cake with this play: if you just glance, the play looks all frosting, but if you cut into it, you find many layers.
Part of the reason it looks like mostly frosting is that the technical elements of the play are masterfully done. Luciana Stecconi’s set looks as if was plucked from a Disney theme park: full of gorgeously textured and layered stained wood that builds both silhouettes and wheels within wheels that emphasize the mystery and complexity of the play. There’s another layer of complexity, too, with awe-inspiring and cunningly hidden contrivances that are worth the price of admission alone.
If the gorgeous set isn’t enough to convince you to see the show, Pamela Christian’s performance as the mysterious visitor A should be. A (a single letter name which B thinks stands for Amelia Earhart) drops out of the sky onto B’s tree house during a storm. For a role whose speech is mostly bird calls and one word responses, Christian shows huge range, finding subtle textures in a role that could have been various shades of confusion. The pinnacle of the role of A is an acrobatic scene which brought me to tears. I’m a fairly calloused theatergoer, and I have an ambivalent appreciation for acrobatics, but credit goes to Christian and Movement Director Andrea Moon for using a traditional circus technique that made this old cuss cry.
The real entertaining genius (as opposed to the emotional genius of Christian’s performance) in this show comes from the Sound Design and the two actors who execute it.
WHEN SHE HAD WINGS
Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival
September 23 – November 1
4908 Auburn Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20814
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $12 – $30
Details and Tickets
Most of the non-musical sound effects in When She Had Wings are done foley-style by Calvin McCullough and James Konicek, using outdoor tools lying around B’s father’s tool shed to create sound (i.e. using a rake for scraping sounds or a socket wrench for mechanical noises). While I deeply relished the irony of having Konicek in a role with almost no lines (his voice is so sonorously beautiful I would pay money to hear him read the phone book), both he and McCullough steal the show as physical representations of B’s mood and imagination.
This device is brilliant, not only because it physicalizes the sounds that all children make when playing, but also because they act as interpreters for B. The eyes of kids in the audience are naturally drawn to the clownish Sound Operators, so while Maggie Wilder delivers nuanced dialogue, the kids have a shortcut to understanding B’s heart without being preached to with surface deep dialogue.
This is what makes When She Had Wings not only the best Young Audiences play I’ve seen in a while, but also a very good show regardless of audience: it has an emotional depth that grabbed me in the moment and an intellectual depth that allows for later discussion and analysis. It’s educational (I learned a great deal about Amelia Earhart through B’s knowledge), but it never veers into preachy or didactic. It deals with painful and real issues, but it never tries to pander to young audiences by softening those blows. It embodies the openness and honesty that children want in a theater production, but it never sacrifices the complexity that adults crave. If you’re looking for a Theater for Young Audiences show, When She Had Wings is a top pick, and, very fortunately, the answer is the same if you’re looking for any well-written show.
When She Had Wings by Susan Zeder . Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer . Featuring Pamela Christian, Ian Le Valley, Maggie Wilder, James Konicek, and Calvin McCullough. Set Design: Luciana Stecconi. Lighting Design: Zachary Gilbert . Costume Design: Collin Ranney . Sound Design: Christopher Baine . Movement Director: Andrea Moon . Production Stage Manager: Elisabeth Ribar . Produced by Imagination Stage . Reviewed by Alan Katz.