"Peter Pan and Wendy"

By Elizabeth Egloff
Adapted from the novel Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie.
and Directed by Marcus Stern 
Presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center
In repertory through January 19

 Reviewed by G.L. Horton

 The American Repertory Theater's production of "Peter Pan and Wendy" passed the first and most important test: children, who made up about ten or fifteen percent of the audience at the matinee I saw, were quietly absorbed by it for its entire intermissionless ninety minutes.  Therefore, it is safe to assume that the version of J. M. Barrie’s story that Marcus Stern and Elizabeth Egloff put on the ART stage does address matters of concern for children today. Towards the end of the performance I felt the well-up of nostalgic tears in my own eyes, convincing me that it connects with at least this adult’s long-lost child and guilt-ridden parent. ''Peter Pan & Wendy,'' is hard edged and sad, but mercifully free of the blatant manipulations and condescending cuteness that often plagues children’s theatre. The Stern/Egloff collaboration feels like an honest investigation of the Peter Pan material, conducted for the benefit of both adults and children, and the hardness and sadness are peculiar to this instance and not infected by the free floating angst that sometimes washes out human particulars on the ART stage. With Wendy at its center, this investigation was as interested in mothers and daughters as it was in mothers and sons.

The main characters migrated from the Barrie era with their broad outlines intact. Wendy (Emma Roberts) was still a mostly-civilized little girl trained to keep up appearances and consider others, but with plenty of curiosity and courage, too. Peter (Justin Campbell) was still a wild child, flourishing in all the brave and boisterous parts that parenting prunes away. Costumed rather like one of Harvard Square’s adolescent skateboarders in day-glo green tee shirt and cut offs, and sporting a spiky hairdo, Campbell had less charm than the Pans we are used to, but more of dignity and danger. The Darling brothers, grownup Jason Weinberg as John the nerdish older one, and child William Dunn as Michael the adorable the little one, were splendidly ordinary, their reactions plausible no matter what era shaped them. Mr. and Mrs. Darling, played by Jeremy Geidt and Karen McDonald, seemed even more than usually peripheral. Although Mr. Darling’s whim was law in his still-Victorian household, his connection to his children was so tenuous that he apparently made no more impression on their psyches than he would have if the paternal function had been carried out by an anonymous sperm donor. Delivering his lines in an unmodulated bark, Geidt didn’t make much of an impression on the audience, either. McDonald's Mrs.Darling came across better, her social obligations allowing her to supply just enough maternal nurture to inspire all the younguns with a longing for more. McDonald also went to pieces nicely after her children disappeared.

The adaptation’s principal fantasy characters, Nana the dog who serves as the Darling household's nurserymaid and Tinkerbell Peter's fairy companion, baffled me. But then, I’m of the pre-TV generation, and these updated characters may be based on allusions inaccessible to me. Nora Zimmett’s Tinkerbell was costumed by Catherine Zuber in a ratty tutu and an electric blue fright wig, and  her Doc Martens kept her resolutely earthbound.  The fairy’s personality and her attachment to Peter were scraped clean of all the Victorian attributes that made Tinkerbell a distillation of the period’s notions of femininity. This Tink was powerful and petulant, yes. Tink certainly wanted to hang out in Peter’s vicinity, but her possessiveness was that of a selfish child who won’t share toys. Nothing of romantic obsession in it, let alone an eternally feminine will to self-sacrifice. Nana, the canine maid, wasn’t a furry female fuss-budget with the true-blue heart of the loyal servant class. “She” was a big tough man (Remo Arnaldi) in a mastiff mask carrying a baseball bat, wearing an apron and chomping a cigar. This character drew laughs, but I didn’t understand it at all. Our current professional classes, like the Victorians but unlike American parents of the post W.W.I generation, consign the workaday drudgery of raising their children to hired menials who have about the same status in the household as the family pet. Barrie’s Nana is a comment on the emotional consequences of this situation. What new comment was Airaldi’s baseball bat wielding master sergeant of a Nana making?

Once in Never Never Land  --- the flying effect was done by designers Stern and Christopher Walker having the children's mixed voices come from successive overhead speakers,  which made them sound as if they were flying invisibly past us through the dark night--- Araldi doubled as Tootles and Jeremy Rabb played Slightly. Throwaway kids seesawing between slapstick and pathos, the pair did very well as stand-ins for the whole community of Lost Boys. The attenuated pirate band was made up of Skylight, played by Robert Kropf, and Smee, played by Stephen Rowe. They were very like the Lost Boys: older but not wiser. Will LeBow was a Captain Hook who brought with him all the tarnished grandeur of a whole line of Captain Hooks, an elegant beneficiary of his predecessors' romantic posturing. LeBow’s Hook was allowed little time to strut and preen, and hardly any rhetorical flourish, but LeBow made much of that little by taking Hook's losses seriously.

Alas, there are no longer mermaids in Never Never Land. Peter lures Wendy off to be a substitute mother for him and his Lost Boys with the promise of mermaids, but Wendy never gets to see any. In fact, none of the young adventurers seem to encounter in Never Never Land anything but the fears they bring with them. Nature now refers to human nature, not picturesque scenery with wild tribes and forfeited predators -- so Never Never Land’s a bleak place of yellow, red, black and white, of heavy outline and bright glare.  Director Marcus Stern wanted his modernized version to do without the specifically Victorian professional class trappings of Barrie’s story, as well as prune away the additions and modifications made by Disney. With its punkish touches, designer Allison Koturbash's simplified visual field mimics the cheaply-made cartoons for kids that dominate imaginations tuned to Saturday morning TV, and Egloffs’ caption-lean dialogue presumably makes Peter Pan’s emotional content more accessible and appealing to a TV generation.

I’m afraid I’m a poor judge of just how successful the Stern/Egloff vision is. The Disney movie, Mary Martin on stage flapping her elbows and crowing like a banty rooster --these are pale and malleable and easily dislodged by revisionism, as far as I am concerned. But the words and images of Barrie’s Peter Pan, absorbed on my grandmother’s lap, lie very deep in me. As a bookworm I had a childhood lived most intensely in the extravagant language and mysteriously ramified customs of Victorian England, as portrayed in the books adults of the time thought suitable for children. I can see in my mind’s eye all the black and white illustrations in the fat volume that had belonged to my father, from which my grandmother read. With a little more concentration-- thinking back hard and pressing hands to the temples-- I can call up the full color embellishments I supplied from my own imagination once I could read the book for myself. Even as I admired the clean lines and clear symbolism of Koturbash’s designs, and the focused minimalism of Egloff’s dialogue, I kept thinking: This would all be very well for a tiny theatre in a converted storefront, where the audience could cozy up to it and flesh it out with their own reactions.. Definitely better and more honest than TV.  But  the ART’s vast stage and abundant lights and traps and fly bars seem underemployed,  Never Never Land a neglected and meager place, scarcely worth a second visit.