Monday, October 18, 2010

Once in love with Dorothy

(Dorothy Silver in "Wings." Photo by Kathy Sandham.)

In days of yore, when supernovas like Bette Davis ruled the box office, their home studios would periodically stick them in prestigious, uplifting epics chronicling the triumph of the human spirit. This, of course, would up the studios' cultural ante and guarantee them an Oscar to make up for lost revenue. Following the same principle, Beck Center has commandeered Dorothy Silver and put her in "Wings" - not to be confused with the silent film of the same name starring Clara Bow - between productions of "My Fair Lady" and the perennial "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Arthur Kopit's 1978 drama cunningly uses interior monologues to dramatize the cerebral imprisonment and devastation of a once-vital aviatrix. In that noble Warner Brothers tradition, it culminates in chin-held-high exhilaration as Emily, the play's heroine, unearths her most euphoric memory of walking on the wings of a soaring plane. Although well-wrought and earnest, Kopit's work has occasional whiffs of formaldehyde good intentions, and its relentlessness makes one yearn for the intrusion of a Keystone Kops pie fight.

However, there are extenuating circumstances that make this production imperative, and this is the aforementioned, all-too-rare appearance of Dorothy Silver. When a cultured friend of mine confessed he had never experienced a Silver performance, I berated him by pointing out that here is an omission as grievous as living in Jerusalem and never having worshiped at the Wailing Wall. He was kidnapped, and by the end of the play's 90 minutes, like all earthly beings, he was overwhelmed by Silver's incandescent projection of humanity. England has its Redgrave, the past has its Tandy and we in Cleveland have Silver. All three women show that beauty goes beyond ivory complexions and the promise of spring. The magic of Silver's acting lies in what Lillian Hellman's autobiographical "Pentimento" suggests: traces of the hopeful young girl peaking out from the present-day wrinkled visage.

Another lagniappe of the production is the welcome return of Derdriu Ring as the therapist. Ring, like Maureen O'Hara, seems to encapsulate all of Ireland in her red-haired feistiness. Watching these two major forces of nature together, we yearn for the roles that call out for their talents: Ring in a long line of fierce O'Casey and nimble-tongued Shaw heroines; and Silver in comedies and tragedies ranging from Dolly Levi to Samuel Beckett. But to return to Bette Davis: Don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars.

Beck Center presents "Wings" through Nov. 7. For tickets, call 216-521-2540.

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