First Stage, where dreams take wing
As children, we all have dreams and flights of fancy. But what happens when a mentally ill parent cannot help to nurture those dreams? That happened to Della Wells, now a well-known Milwaukee artist. First Stage Milwaukee is sharing Wells’ story of a tumultuous childhood with a mother suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia in Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly, which runs at the Marcus Center Todd Wehr Theater through Nov. 13.
Husband and wife duo of director Mark Lutwak and writer Y York bring aligned every detail and line of the play with Wells’ work, right down to costume and set designs. A small cast delivered a complex and believable performance.
The set emulates Wells’ collages in ways large and small. The Bridge family home is framed out around the living room and stair case. What makes the set singular is the layers of framing: rooftop, eaves, and doorways create lines and depth. Each carefully crafted piece brings delights. Hidden, Wells-style collage elements pop out of the wallpaper when backlit.
Alma’s disease takes its toll on the family and pries them apart in every way. She insists that the FBI has sent Theo to spy on the family. She forces excessive etiquette upon Tonia, and teaches her that ladies are to be quiet, calm and neutral. For a young artist, this is a challenge: Tonia tells Theo, “On the inside, I am red. On the outside, I am subdued.” The children, looking winsome and sweet in sharp period costumes by Daryl L. Harris, bring beauty and light to a difficult subject.
The cast worked to tell not only Wells’ story, but the story of the struggle of Milwaukee’s black middle class. Aunt Franny, the feisty and fashionable one, brings a neighborhood petition to her brother to stop the construction of an interstate through the city’s black cultural center. I-94 and I-43 stand today as a dark reminder of the city’s past, a struggle that still endures today.
In addition to the beautiful words of Y York, Collette Pollard’s stunning set and Harris’ 1960s costumes make Fly special. I fell in love wtih Tonia’s final costume, a red, billowing patchwork jumper inspired by the elegant dress worn by Caribbean doll Miss Merci. No longer subdued on the outside, Tonia twirled in a whirlwind of streamers, feathers and dancing lights.
Because the play deals with the mature subject of mental illness, Fly is recommended for audiences ages 8 and older. While there isn’t a direct statement made about schizophrenia, some of the concepts might be beyond younger children. All in all, Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly is a beautiful piece about one of Milwaukee’s living artistic treasures.
Tickets start at $13, the First Stage website and the Marcus Center box office, 929 N. Water St., (414) 273-7206 or toll free at (888) 612-3500. The number for TDD (for the hearing-impaired) is 414 273-3080.