J.M. Barrie’s famous character has seen more than his share of adaptations, probably the most notable being Walt Disney’s animated feature and the enduring stage musical with middle-aged women essaying the role of the boy who wouldn’t grow up. Michael Lluberes’ Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers, making its West Coast premiere at the Blank’s 2nd Stage Theater, takes a markedly darker approach.
As the play opens, the Darlings’ youngest child, Michael, has already died in infancy, and his mother is so grief-stricken that she can barely take care of her other two youngsters, Wendy and John. Mr. Darling and their beloved dog Nana are nowhere to be found. It’s a relief for the siblings when Peter Pan arrives, offering to take them away from their bleak existence to a place where pirates roam the stormy seas, mermaids languidly swim in moonlit lagoons and children never, ever have to become adults.
Of course, Neverland is not without its problems: it’s a dirty, noisy and rather bloody place. The constant confrontations with the pirates quickly wear thin, and Wendy is tired of playing mother to a needy group of spoiled kids. She also comes to realize that Peter is not the carefree boy he’d claimed to be. In fact, he harbors a truly nasty hostility toward all mothers, a result of his abandonment as a child; he’d abducted the Lost Boys from parents who “didn’t deserve them”; and he’s frequently tortured by long, painful, sobbing dreams. Meanwhile, the fearsome pirate Captain Hook, still seeking revenge against Peter for Peter’s having lopped off his hand and fed it to a crocodile, is just as hostile to all children and constantly cries out for their blood.
With a plot like that, it’s quite an accompishment that Pan can still work as an enchanting—and even moving—theatrical piece. The Blank Theatre has done a superb job of bringing the show to the 2nd Stage with a polished production highlighted by solid performances.
The moment you walk into the theater and see Mary Hamrick’s eerie set, you immediately realize you’re not in a Disney movie. Tim Swiss and Zack Lapinski’s lighting design, Rebecca Kessin’s atmospheric aural effects and Kellsy MacKilligan’s perfect costumes all conspire to transport you to a dark, gritty Neverland you’ve never seen before.
The children are all played by adults, a smart choice that helps to reinforce the play’s underlying themes of loss and regret. Another benefit to this casting, whether it’s intentional or not, is that you get the feeling that you’re watching reluctant grown-ups “putting on a show” in a last-ditch effort to regain their lost youth.
Daniel Shawn Miller and Liza Burns are terrific as Peter and Wendy, two damaged youngsters who’ve been prematurely aged by circumstance, a process emphasized when Wendy points out that Peter, though still possessing all of his baby teeth, has “old eyes.” And, ironically, when they’re behaving like children, it seems far more like play-acting than the moments in which they are faced with authentic adult emotions.
In keeping with all the Hooks that have gone before her, Trisha LaFache delivers an appropriately broad and sneering performance, albeit more bloodthirsty than most. And in keeping with the stage tradition of the same actor portraying Hook and Mr. Darling, she plays Hook and Mrs. Darling. Although Hook’s gender is never pointed out, it does add a nice dimension that the mother-hating Peter’s mortal enemy is…a woman.
As the sole surviving Darling son, Benjamin Campbell plays John as a proper young English gentleman who is easily influenced into becoming a member of the Lost Boys, accepting Wendy as his mother while forgetting his previous life. David Hemphill, Amy Lawhorn and Jackson Evans all fill various roles as Lost Boys, pirates, “redskins” and narrators, and they’re all fine, adding welcome comedy to the intriguing, dark production.