By Melissa Rose Bernardo
Updated October 24, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
Joan Marcus

The playwright who goes inside a character’s head is a very brave one indeed. The one who goes inside the damaged brain of a stroke victim as it is happening — and puts the entire jangly linguistic puzzle on stage — well, Arthur Kopit’s Wings succeeds on sheer audacity alone. (Wings was first written as a radio play for NPR in 1976, just months after Kopit’s father suffered a severe stroke.)

Now receiving a captivating revival at Off Broadway’s Second Stage, the 70-minute Wings is essentially a one-woman vehicle, more performance art than play. (Supporting characters do, however, move along the periphery — most significantly, a mellifluous-voiced therapist played by January LaVoy.) The astonishingly versatile four-time Tony nominee Jan Maxwell takes us through two years worth of ups and downs in the fractured, verbally challenged world of former aviatrix Emily Stilson. One minute she’s spouting what we’d term gibberish (”Hapst aporkshop fleetish yes of course it’s yes the good ol’ times…”), the next she’s providing a remarkably astute assessment of her condition (”The thing is…I can’t make it do like it used to”), and in another she’s breaking the considerable tension with a deadpan one-liner (”It’s really nuts, isn’t it?”). An afflicted mind is a scary place to be, but Maxwell’s grace and sincerity make us instantly feel secure.

Director John Doyle’s bailiwick is musical theater, particularly the lyrically intricate works of Stephen Sondheim (Road Show, the recent Company and Sweeney Todd revivals). And that background serves him well for a show built on words and sounds. The cacophonous ”Prelude” — a sucker-punch jumble of stream-of-consciousness dialogue, projections, recorded noise, and bursts of light designed to represent Mrs. Stilson’s stroke — plays something like a 12-tone symphony. Shame, then, that a group-therapy scene plays like a scene from Awakenings. B

(Tickets: or 212-246-4422)