What is really lost in Never Land

`Peter' flies high at Center Stage

Theater Review

October 10, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Technically, only the first and last scenes of Peter Pan take place in a nursery. But one of the most ingenious things about Center Stage's entrancing production is that it situates the entire play there.

When Captain Hook makes his entrance, he's riding in a sedan chair made of two huge, stacked building blocks. When the Lost Boys build a home for Wendy, they string up sheets like a child's bedroom fort. And when the pirates chain their child-prisoners together, they use a yellow jump rope.

Not that there aren't some high-tech effects in director Irene Lewis and set designer Robert Israel's production. Thanks to Flying by Foy - the folks who taught Mary Martin to fly a half-century ago - Jefferson Mays' Peter and the Darling children aren't merely airborne, they soar out over the audience and into the Head Theater balcony.

As delightful as all of this is, there's something else going on here, too. Keeping the action firmly rooted in the nursery is one way Lewis points up the fallacy of eternal youth. Like the games of make-believe that children play in their rooms at home, Lewis' Never Land is a purely imaginary place.

Another indication of the impossibility of outwitting the aging process is the casting of a preponderance of adult actors as Peter's band of Lost Boys. As costumed by designer Constance Hoffman, however, these adults wear the same kids' togs - sailor suits, PJs, satin breeches - that their characters presumably had on when they fell out of their prams and wound up in Never Land. Even two burly pirates wear baby bonnets.

The point seems to be that, although they have achieved Peter's goal of never growing up, they haven't managed to stay young. They get older, but not more mature, which is, of course, what the Peter Pan Complex is all about.

Lewis' production reveals other psychological insights as well, particularly in terms of male-female relationships. Traditionally, the role of Peter has been played by a woman, but in casting Mays, Lewis never lets us forget the nascent sexual tension between Kelly Hutchinson's yearning Wendy and clueless Peter. (Both are adult actors who have a youthful air.)

Furthermore, Hutchinson's Wendy seems to welcome growing up (and especially falling in love) as eagerly as Peter fears it. Mays, on the other hand, plays Peter as a thoroughgoing little boy, right down to a playful predilection for violence.

When Wendy sews Peter's shadow back on, Mays engages in shadow-play that includes stabbing a dagger through his head and lopping off one of his legs. And when Peter arrives to rescue the Lost Boys and the Darling children from Sam Tsoutsouvas' marvelously menacing Captain Hook, Mays pops up mischievously above the back wall of the set with dagger in hand and the same demented look in his eye as homicidal Chucky of slasher-film fame.

Director Lewis and dramaturg Charlotte Stoudt have judiciously edited Barrie's script, eliminating such problematic characters as Indians and mermaids and ending the play with a short piece Barrie called "When Wendy Grew Up." The conclusion gives the last word to Wendy and emphasizes the unrequited longing that follows her into adulthood.

There's another significant adult theme in Lewis' production as well - death. Barrie wrote the play in part as a response to his own brother's death at age 13, and, especially in this age when child abductions are increasingly in the news, there's some comfort in the thought of "lost" children living out a happy, playful afterlife in a mythical land.

As Mrs. Darling, Christianne Tisdale brings heartbreaking poignancy to the moment when she finds her three children, Wendy, Michael and John, restored to their beds. It's a moment she's pined for so fervently that at first she can't believe it's come true.

Like child's play, there's an element of chaos in Lewis' staging, and the large cast - which includes four honest-to-goodness children, adorable all - makes it infectious. Additional praise goes to lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin who, for a change, gets to create an actual character, Tinker Bell, and to composer/musician/actor Karen Hansen, who composed the incidental score, which includes four songs (none as catchy as those in the 1954 Broadway musical version, but charming nonetheless).

Barrie's 1904 play is one of the great classics of children's literature, but Center Stage's production is much more psychologically sophisticated than the typical kids' show. At the same time that it will enchant children, it will leave their elders pondering a Freudian delight of grown-up issues.

Peter Pan

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays. Through Nov. 24

Tickets: $30-$50

Call: 410-332-0033

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