A new light is shone on the familiar Peter Pan childhood classic, as J.M. Barrie writes for adults in Mary Rose, the little seen mysterious tale of grown up fantasy.
Continuing its 20th anniversary season, Rep Stage presents an appealing rediscovery on stage at Howard Community College in the Studio Theatre of the Visual and Performing Arts Center.
Mary Rose is a lyrical, haunting story of love, loss of innocence, tricks of time, eternal youth. . . and ghosts, wrapped around a gentle comedy of middle class life. Christine Demuth, stars in the title role of the girl who mysteriously disappears (twice), setting off a heartbreaking chain of events. The play begins and ends in the haunted parental home of Mary Rose.
This rarely produced full length play by Sir James Mathew Barrie, first performed in 1920 (his last major play), is considered by some to be a sequel of sorts to Peter Pan (1904). If Peter Pan is the little boy that didn’t want to grow up – who has his Never Never Land. Mary Rose is the little girl who can’t grow up. She has her island “that likes to be visited.”
Director Michael Stebbins (Rep Stage’s Producing Artistic Director), reunites Rep veteran cast members Marilyn Bennett, Christine Demuth, Maureen Kerrigan and Bill Largess, whom he also directed in Two by J.M. Barrie: The New Word and The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, in 2010. Rep newcomers Eric M. Messner and Adam Downs and returning actor, Tony Tsendeas round out the cast.
When Mary Rose was a little girl on holiday with her parents, she vanished for 30 days on a remote, uninhabited Scottish island, Hebridean, one that is shunned by the superstitious locals. When she was found, she had no idea she’s been gone, or that any time has passed. Years later, as a young wife and mother, she returns to the island with her husband, and disappears again and given up for dead. . . until a quarter of a century later. Yes, after 25 years she reappears, and remains exactly the same as on the day of her disappearance. In the intervening years everyone else of course, has grown older. The baby she left behind is now older than his mother.
Living up to the performance expectations of a title character is never easy for an actor. Christine Demuth is quite effective presenting an immature and naive Mary Rose, but the gravitas and impact of her character needs to be more deeply realized. Missing for me was the ethereal, “lightness” of her otherworldly being, and the often mentioned innocent, “childlike” quality that is referred by the other characters. Mary Rose speaks about being playful – and she is a fascinated girl – but I missed the colorful whimsy described in the Barrie play. On opening night, the play is just becoming the actors’ own. But in this performance, the title character had a heaviness and willfulness that were unmistakable, and uncharacteristically childlike. The uneven portrayal took something away from the cautious concern believability, and the reasoned overprotectiveness toward her by the other characters in the cast.
Eric M. Messner plays two characters – Mary Rose’s husband (Simon Baker) and her son (Harry) – and he is convincing as both. Messner’s sensitive, credible performance is not only likeable and courageous, he is the emotional pull of the show. Without being cartoonish, Messner is exceptionally good at creating two distinct characters that are very different people (complete with two different accents, which he nails), and we see them over a span of many years.
The reliable Bill Largess plays the good natured but sometimes irascible Mr. Morland with an approachable reassurance. Maureen Kerrigan (Mrs. Morland) is delightful and humorous as his attentive, concerned wife, and Tony Tsendeas ( Mr. Amy) is entertaining as the trusted family friend. Marilyn Bennett succeeds as the wary, and justifiably spooked Mrs. Otery, and Adam Downs is energetic and easy as the robust, good sense Cameron.
Technically, this opening night production had some concerns – ones that I am certain will be worked out. The pacing of the first act dragged at times and should be improved as the actors get in a better rhythm with each other. The sound design in particular, was a constant distraction right from the beginning with the crackling fire that continued scene after scene even when the fireplace wasn’t being used. Then there were several overpowering music cues that tiptoe throughout the play – at times competing with the spoken dialogue. The chirping birds, please, need to cease sooner than later.
The decision to use hollow, pre-recorded “Mary Rose” calls at the end of Act 1 leading into the intermission didn’t make a lot of sense to me when you had the actor on stage saying the same thing before he exits. It felt false, stagy, and immediately snatched away the strong emotional momentum created by Eric Messner’s Simon Blake character. If a visceral, disconnect reaction from the on stage “reality” was the intended mindset from the director, then I am more confused than affected.
Jay Herzog’s lighting design was moody, but less expressive than one might expect in a supernatural tale, and the two silhouette storytelling moments added little to the overall visual presentation (especially when you can fully see the actor through the curtain material).
The costume design by Celestine Ranney-Howes looked smart, well thought for the period, and the aging of the characters was well done. The dialect coaching talents of Nancy Krebs were spot on and a production highlight that greatly contributed to the authenticity and appeal of this Rep Stage presentation.
In Mary Rose, the past is the past, and like childhood, the past is something to put behind us. Audiences will encounter a searching kind of heartbreak in Director Michael Stebbins’ solid and intriguing production, but likely will be left with a satisfactory sense of self discovery, gratitude, and cherished reflection of time spent with loved ones.
The rarity of this J.M. Barrie curiosity is a good reason to make the trip out to Columbia, MD. Barrie’s plot and Mary Rose’s character keeps you guessing as to the how, where, and why’s things happen the way they do. But, to find out more about the mysteries of this fantasy wonder, you’ll need to see the show.
Running time: Two hours and seventeen minutes, including a 15 minute intermission.
An interview with Mary Rose’s Bill Largess by Joel Markowitz on DCMTA.