When Shakespeare Theatre Company asked Lauren Gunderson to craft an updated take on Peter Pan, her first instinct was to say no.
“Absolutely not!” the playwright said during an interview last week. She then launched into a list of everything that was wrong with the classic 1904 J.M. Barrie play: “Wendy is only referenced by whether or not she will be a mother. Not to mention the deeply harmful misrepresentation of indigenous people in Tiger Lily and her family. I read it and I was like ‘why are people still doing this play all the time?’ ”
But Gunderson soon realized that STC was not asking for a traditional retelling of Peter Pan. “They wanted someone to basically save what is worth saving about this thrilling, timeless story and confront, but not erase, what is deeply problematic about it.”
In other words, it was a job well suited to Lauren Gunderson. Gunderson has made a name for herself writing hugely successful plays that feature strong female leads, typically historical or literary figures with a background in science and math, whose stories had been overshadowed by male characters written by male writers.
America can’t get enough of Gunderson’s feminist historical retellings. She has been one of the nation’s most frequently produced living playwrights since 2016 and American Theater magazine recently reported that in 2019, Gunderson is once again the most produced living playwright in America. She typically has 20 productions in development at any given time and her latest play, The Half-Life of Marie Curie, just opened off-Broadway.
If anyone can counter the racism and sexism inherent in Peter Pan, it just might be Lauren Gunderson.
Alan Paul, STC’s associate artistic director, approached Gunderson a year ago with the idea of developing a reworked Peter Pan for STC. “The pull of it for me was Wendy and what happens to her,” Paul recalled. “Peter Pan already has his story.”
Gunderson and Paul have spent the year since developing Peter Pan and Wendy, which will have its world premiere this month at STC’s Sidney Harman Hall. Paul will direct the show. Both artists describe Peter Pan and Wendy as a play that resembles and honors the original Peter Pan while aggressively reinterpreting its lead characters to make them relevant and thought-provoking to a contemporary audience.
Gunderson’s Peter Pan story begins, as did J.M. Barrie’s, in the Darling family nursery. But Wendy is no longer a thinly developed mother figure who follows Peter to Neverland to darn socks and tell stories. She is an amateur astronomer with an insatiable curiosity. “The first thing the children do when they leave the nursery is go into the stars,” Gunderson said, “so I thought, let’s have somebody for whom that would be a big important deal.” The main difference, Gunderson observes, is that “Wendy is no longer following a cute boy out the window, she’s following her curiosity and passion for adventure. That’s a big difference.”
It was a happy coincidence that Gunderson was writing a separate play about Marie Curie when Paul approached her to rework Peter Pan. Curie won her first Nobel prize in 1903 and J.M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan in 1904, so Curie became a logical role model for Wendy. “When you think about what Wendy would be preoccupied with in 1904,” Paul observed, “Marie Curie is an example of a very strong, very famous woman of her time that she could aspire to be.”
One change that Gunderson is especially eager to get right is the revamped Tiger Lily character. Many contemporary productions of the still popular 1958 Peter Pan musical choose to eliminate what is widely considered a racist oversimplification of Native American cultures. Gunderson and Paul, however, did not want to retreat from the Tiger Lily character but to actively flip the script and “create something that indigenous communities can feel respected by and hopefully encouraging of,” Gunderson said. She approached Tiger Lily by very openly acknowledging that, as a white woman, “there is so much that I don’t know about the experience.” She credits many consultants, including, Isabella Star Blanc, the actor portraying Tiger Lily, for enriching the character.
Tiger Lily is now a driving force in Peter Pan and Wendy, a vocal sparring partner with Peter, and a leader in Neverland. “Tiger Lily is brave and courageous and a warrior,” Gunderson said. “It was just a matter of actually treating her like a fully fleshed-out person and acknowledging the indigenous perspective on situations as opposed to reveling in the stereotypes.”
Creating strong female leads is not new for Gunderson, but placing them into a grand, swashbuckling adventure play is. Peter Pan and Wendy includes dazzling special effects, mid-air fight sequences and elaborate sets, costumes and puppets. A team of 20 actors (19 human and one canine) and 66 designers are putting together what promises to be the most extravagant and physical production in STC’s history.
“There are not a lot of female playwrights who are asked to do this kind of play with adventure and action,” Paul observed. “I think Lauren is sort of re-writing the rules on how you pull off an adventure story with a female lead in a play.”
Those rewrites include greater agency for the female characters, but in updating the story’s take on race and gender, Gunderson also looked at the male characters. The mother of two young boys observed that the original Peter Pan was unable to develop empathy for anyone around him. “His solution to everything is to fight and be the leader and walk around haughtily with his minions behind him,” she said. “What does that say to boys about how to be a boy and a hero? A hero should be someone who listens to people and feels what they feel. A hero fights for more than just himself and doesn’t use violence and aggression.”
Peter Pan is still Peter Pan in Gunderson’s retelling, but he’s perhaps a more reflective Peter Pan, one who learns from and collaborates with the girls in the room. “The big joy of it for me is that Tinkerbell, Tiger Lily, and Wendy are the engine that finally allows these Lost Boys to defeat their greatest enemy,” Paul observed. “They can’t do it without the girls, and they learn in a lot in the process.”
One thing hasn’t changed much? Tinkerbell. “I wanted to keep her sass and edge,” Gunderson said. “Tinkerbell is like a female CEO that acts like a man. I didn’t want to make her a perfect friend. That’s not the true female experience either.”
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes including one 15-minute intermission. (Subject to change)
Peter Pan and Wendy plays December 3, 2019, through January 12, 2020, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sydney Harman Hall – 610 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at or go online.