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Not Acting Their Age

Center Stage Turns 40 by Taking Childishness to the Extreme

Boys Will Be Boys: Jefferson Mays looms over Kelly Hutchinson in Peter Pan.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 10/9/2002

Peter Pan

J.M. Barrie

"No one has grown up ideas (not parents or anyone)." This is one of the many scrawled notes that J.M. Barrie wrote while conceiving his most famous play, Peter Pan, and it expresses the idea at the very heart of Center Stage's new production. Everything from the performances to the slightest costuming detail play up the childlike and nonsensical nature of Barrie's work. In doing so, Center Stage kicks off its 40th season with a thoroughly charming, though occasionally stunted, look at the boy who would never grow up.

Peter Pan, after all, can be a tricky play. There is a darkness to it that sets it apart from a lot of children's fare, but the story itself lacks the depth of a more adult drama. Nothing changes. No lessons are learned. Peter Pan begins the play as a perpetual boy and ends the play the same. Wendy is easily replaced by her daughter Jane. There's never any real tension in the battle between Captain Hook and Pan because it's never in doubt as to who will be the victor. So why are audiences still fascinated by this tale nearly 100 years later?

Part of it may be the insights Peter Pan still offers into the thoughts and feelings of children. (The inspiration for the play was drawn from five boys Barrie frequently entertained.) By portraying even the play's adults through this lens, Barrie allows you to watch an intricate, fantastical game of make-believe--the very kind you yourself used to play.

This elaborate sense of childishness is the focus of Center Stage's production. The Lost Boys, played mostly by adults, including 66-year-old Laurence O'Dwyer as Tootles, wear oversized baby clothes. The pirates are decked out in conflagrations of petticoats, baby clothes, and men's suits. Pacifiers adorn Hook's coat like so many trophy scalps. Smee wears a bonnet and bib. The set is made up almost entirely of old-fashioned letter blocks. The actors even make all their own sound effects: If a bomb explodes, an actor yells, "Ka-boom"; the chinks of every sword clash come out of their mouths. Fight director J. Allen Suddeth has forgone smooth swashbuckling for the stops and starts of children's backyard duels.

This sort of intentional clunkiness is effective when it adds to the play's childlike air, but it seems to have bled into the production's technical aspects as well. You don't have to sit in the front row to see the twins' real hair jutting out from under their wigs or Jane's microphone poking out from under her hair. No effort is made to hide the wires used for flying, and--despite contracting Flying by Foy, a company that has been making Peter Pans airborne since 1954--the flight scenes are awkward. Plus, the determination to keep the play at exactly two hours makes the action feel clipped, though occasionally mercifully so. The clap-your-hands-if-you-believe-in-fairies scene is over in an instant.

That awkwardness is smoothed over by the infectious energy of the actors, however. The Lost Boys-- Andy Paterson, Michael Wiggins, and particularly O'Dwyer, who absolutely steals the show--are delightfully playful. And the pirates, especially Sam Tsoutsouvas' Hook and Warren Snipe's acrobatic Cecco, are amusingly raucous. Only the actual children seem to have difficulty getting into the production, giving fairly stilted performances. For the role of Peter, director Irene Lewis dodged the usual Sandy Duncan-style actress flitting about the stage in green tights for Jefferson Mays, a full-grown man in short pants and red Chuck Taylors. Mays revels in his character's distracted apathy and distaste for all things grown: His farewell to Wendy has a distinct "smell ya later" feel that's in perfect keeping with an adolescent boy.

Despite its lavish costumes and energetic cast, Center Stage's production of Peter Pan does little more than enchant children without boring their parents. But perhaps, 100 years later, that is all Peter is really supposed to do.

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