by J. M. Barrie
Theatre New Brunswick
What we do for children that's most important -- after we've made sure they're not hungry -- is tell them stories that are important both to them and to us. Peter Pan is one of those stories. It's appropriate that Walter Learning has chosen it as this year's holiday offering from Theatre New Brunswick, even though there's nothing particularly Christmassy about it. It's the holiday play, after all, that people bring kids to see, and this year it's a wonderful chance for them to experience the magic theatre can create.
The production TNB has mounted of this play -- one you might think of as a tired old warhorse -- not only does justice to J. M. Barrie's classic, it brings it alive again for all of us. It does this in part by some thoroughly professional stagecraft, and some wonderfully shrewd staging, but also by being, itself, the telling of a story. It's even more about stories than Barrie's original, which was itself a story mostly about telling stories.
TNB has framed Barrie's play, making it a tale told to us during a Second World War air raid by an older Wendy (Shari Saunders), one who's lived on to become an air raid warden. They've framed the story-book scenes with literal story-book frames surrounding the stage. They've put, between us and the story-book painted sets (especially wonderful, perhaps, the fantasy pirate ship), a magical decorative scrim that can suddenly fade away, and the characters and scenes behind it appear as though called up by the storyteller's magic.
And all this stagecraft pays off. It was remarkable, in this production, that the moment when Peter shows the Darling children how to fly, and they all swoop up into the sky, wasn't magical so much because they were flying (kids all know nowadays what flying would look like) but because of the way the substantial-looking Darling house simply pulled back, and up, and disappeared from around them, leaving the open sky and a star twinkling, second to the right. It was that that brought the gasps and applause from the packed Playhouse. That kind of magic, the magic of theatre, is what we hope children will learn to love, and the reason why a full house -- and one about a third full of rapt and attentive children -- is such a sign of hope for those of us who think theatre is potentially the most powerful of the arts.
It's also important that this isn't a story of simple uplift and amazement. Central here is the fact that this tale, of the boy who won't -- or can't -- become a man, or understand what it would mean to grow up, is at best a bittersweet one. This Peter Pan isn't played -- as he's often been -- by a female; he's played by the thoroughly male Timm Hughes, and played as right on the very brink of "growing up." This Peter Pan isn't a nice safe ten-year-old, or really a tomboy girl; he's teetering on the edge of sexual maturity -- and desperately avoiding it. He wants a pal, and he wants a mom, and he wants something else . . . but he's not quite sure what it is.
This is a tale for both children and adults, and in important ways it's about sexuality and maturity. It's a story told by a woman, who has grown up, and is no longer a girl, about a boy who will never become a man. The epilogue, with the un-learning, un-remembering, un-feeling Peter Pan, never growing up and slowly fading from the maturing Wendy's life, is important and moving, and Hughes makes his Peter just the right mix of incipient male charm and what Barrie observantly called "innocent and heartless" childishness.
It's appropriate, given the play's Edwardian idealization of the idea of motherhood, that Mrs. Darling and the chief Vixen, Tiger Lily, are both played by the same actor, Stephanie Graham, who does a super job of being both of Peter Pan's ideal mothers -- the nurturing, responsible, supportive "mom," and the strong, athletic avenging angel in a field hockey uniform who can kick pirates where it really hurts -- and at the same time of being another threat to Peter's desperate struggle to stay uninvolved and undeveloped, either sexually or emotionally.
Sharmaine Ryan, as Wendy, exhibits the same sort of power, both as "Mother" to Peter and as a playmate in a game of house. There's a mature womanliness about Wendy's "What are your exact feelings for me, Peter?" and in the catty, "Oh, yes, Tink will tell you, she has no scruples."
This may be why the famous "Tinker Bell is dying, clap if you believe in fairies" scene strikes me, still, as one of the few hollow notes in the play. Far more moving is Wendy telling the Lost Boys, and her brothers, the sad story about the Darling family losing their children -- or, perhaps even more poignant, the moment when Wendy realizes that Peter will never remember her, and has even forgotten Tinker Bell and Captain Hook. To stay a boy he can't have a memory, or, finally, a heart. Fairies somehow seem a bit beside the point.
It's difficult to tell a story that works for both children and adults without patronizing the children, or rendering them cute by making the story mean different things for the two (so only the adults "get it"). Amazingly, given Barrie's personal history, his story almost never falls into these traps -- and neither does Walter Learning's production.
To be sure, there is a lot of giggly and almost prurient byplay about kissing in Barrie's text, and it all has to do with a story that's right on the edge of being about children and sexuality. But, in good Edwardian style, the text never admits it at all, averting its eyes archly, allowing chaste kisses on the cheek to be called "thimbles." In fact, it's this sort of rich and ambiguous complexity, and the fact that the whole atmosphere of the play is from an era which now seems almost as alien as Shakespeare's or Sophocles', that in large measure makes the production so engaging. We all, grownups and children alike, have to stretch to create for ourselves a world where Mother is so important, where "courage" is exemplified as the Lost Boys, one after another, declaring their willingness to walk Hook's plank rather than betray their loyalty to King Edward.
The point for the actors here isn't deep, subtle characterization, it's being broad, obvious and clear, and everyone did marvelously at it. C. David Johnson is just the Captain Hook all of us male children always dreamed of being, with a wonderful Shakespearean boom and a silent-film-villain dark malevolence that scared everybody half to death when he appeared in the opening of the sleeping Peter's tent. That Hook and Mr. Darling were the same person might not even have been noticed until, at the end, Mr. Darling silences the prattling Lost Boys just as Hook had.
All the cast, in fact -- Daniel Lillford as a truly lovable Smee, the rest of the pirates, the Vixens (looking like a particularly heavy- duty field hockey team, complete with tartan skirts and hockey sticks), and the Lost Boys, too, ragged, vulnerable and, well, small -- are clear, confident and disciplined. The slapstick fights with the pirates, the abduction scene, and Peter's climactic duel with Hook, all are staged expertly and effectively, generating lots of laughs, and not just from the kids. The flying (by Foy Enterprises, who clearly know what they're doing) is wonderful -- effortless and not at all that "tied to the ceiling" effect we remember from other, less skillful productions, and not overdone, either. Nana, the dog, and the wonderful, glowing-eyed, ticking Crocodile are inhabited thoroughly and effectively by Nathan Zwicker.
Finally, the true magic here isn't the "Industrial Light & Magic" stuff, the fireworks and fog, the flying actors and moving sets; it's the magic of story -- story that lets us share with our kids not only our sense of how rich and complicated the world is, but our belief that telling stories is how we pass that understanding on. We can all hope that the young man playing with his yo-yo at the edge of the balcony during the Friday night intermission, and all the rest of the young people who packed the Playhouse, learned that. And that they come back to live theatre for other, less spectacular, stories.