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Theater Review:

"WITH OR WITHOUT WINGS," Mookie Jam at Victory Gardens


Many people become theater artists because they believe they can change the world – or at least touch individuals in an inspiring way. But those goals often exist in an abstract sense. The works of William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman certainly have the power to alter in a positive way audiences’ outlook on the human condition. Yet it might be difficult to point to the specific benefits of their words -- words capable of changing lives over an elusive period of time.

In "With or Without Wings" – a new one-woman show starring Mierka Girten, who teamed up with Second City’s Michael Thomas to adapt her journals for the stage – the theatrical art form is making a profound difference in the lives of people suffering from Multiple Sclerosis and those who know someone with this mysterious disease.

Girten, who was diagnosed with MS nine years ago during her first year of graduate acting studies at DePaul University, has created a theater collective that directly benefits artists with MS. It’s called Mookie Jam and is the production company behind "With or Without Wings," an engaging tragicomedy that not only demystifies MS but also raises funds to offset the medical expenses of MS-diagnosed theater professionals.

The 80-minute performance piece -- which tracks Girten’s goals of becoming an actress after viewing "Annie" on TV in her native Cincinnati to the onset of MS, a suicide attempt, her husband’s unconditional love, and newfound hope now that the disease is in remission – never veers off into weepy melodrama. In fact, the appealing Girten announces from the -go that "I didn’t want this to sound like a cloying memoir." So instead of wallowing in self-pity, the actress opts to attack MS with laughter and quirky dream sequences.

She sashays like June Cleaver onto the stage and draws parallels between the happy homemakers with "no skills" of the 1950’s and her existence in a surreal void as the theater skills she worked so hard to master are rapidly dissolving. The chirpy 1950s introduction also pungently illustrates shattered dreams.

Yet Girten never feels sorry for herself. By crafting such a vocally intense and physically exhausting show (she plays 15 characters), the actress obviously has no intention of letting MS rule her life. She does stress that MS affects everyone differently. Her symptoms involved uncontrollable muscle spasms and total numbness in her leg, arm and certain parts of her face, causing her to slur her speech. Therapy, medication and a positive outlook have allowed her to overcome some of the disease’s devastating challenges (like the side effects of certain medications that can cause depression and suicidal tendencies). Today her MS is in remission, but Girten must maintain a healthy diet and exercise regimen and continue to monitor her health.

In a rare development, her mother was diagnosed with MS shortly after Girten received news of her own condition. Yet the polished and amiable performer does not dwell on the negative. It’s pure joy to listen to Girten’s roommate from hell stories when she first moved to Chicago to study acting. We also get a high-energy taste of her zany childhood. Her unconventional mom insisted that Girten dress up as Phyllis Diller for Halloween. Girten had high hopes of becoming a mime; and, during her angst-ridden teen years, she rebelled by trying to emulate Pat Benatar.

One of the most inventive segments is a game show called "Whoops! You’ve Got a Disease," in which Girten humorously (but not disrespectfully) catalogs the main symptoms of MS without coming across as pedantic or maudlin. A particularly moving sequence involves her disastrous scene as "Mrs. Scottish" (a.k.a. Lady Macbeth) in a DePaul showcase performance. Her MS had advanced to a degree in which she could not remember her lines and began to experience confusing aural signals darting through her brain. This scene is masterfully recreated by sound designers Brando Triantafillou and Doug Corella.

Thanks to Brian Fagan’s unsentimental direction, Girten is able to take us on a multidimensional journey through life’s set backs and triumphs without resorting to heart-pounding heroics. After Girten recounts overdosing on her medication to end her life, she imagines herself flying through the sky in a negligee. Then she quips, "In heaven, we all look like Victoria’s Secret models." And over the course of the play, she addresses everything from alternative medicine to the psychological ramifications of the disease in a down-to-earth manner.

Girten has teamed up with talented designers – Brian McConkey, Scott Zematis, Michael Snyder, Jana Stauffer and Nicole Bond – to transform a show about a difficult subject matter into a wide-reaching and entertaining story about really living life to its fullest potential.•

Mookie Jam’s production of "With or Without Wings" runs through July 8 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. A special signed/access performance will take place July 7 at 5 p.m. Tickets: $10-$20 (with all proceeds benefiting theater artists with MS). Call 773-871-3000.

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