A new adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play Peter Pan presented by the theater company Bedlam and running The Duke through Dec. 23, takes place within a soundscape of rain, waves and thunder claps. We’re safe in our theater seats as we settle into the frame of a bedtime story told and retold by the Darling parents to children Wendy, John and Michael; then by the children to one another; and then, ultimately, as the base script for a backyard playhouse version of Peter Pan, with his troupe of motherless boys. The play’s language is dream-like and poetic and repetitive; the costumes are contemporary and suggestive; the set at once suggestive and literal.
This often-revisited story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up, who tells us “I want always to be a little boy and to have fun,” has produced the name of a syndrome, enhanced the careers of American actresses from Maude Adams to Mary Martin, and spun off myriad new creations such as the Tony-winning Peter and the Starcatcher, which envisions these familiar characters a generation on. In Barrie’s original, Wendy, John and Michael live in Barrie-era London with their parents, a protective dog, and at least one servant; Peter, the perpetual adolescent, visits them through their bedroom window and whisks them away to Neverland — a land of motherless boys. In the midst of this, Peter’s jealous helpmate, the fairy Tinkerbell, both helps and hinders. As Wendy ends up parenting the troupe of boys, evil adults — including the pirate Captain Hook — are thwarted; and the children are safe in their beds by morning.
Bedlam’s production digs into the literal and figurative storytelling of the original play and lands on the comforting idea of being told stories as the coin of the realm. Portions of the dialogue are told and retold in this ensemble-created script, with sequences often repeated to great effect. “We are doing an act,” Darling son John repeats many times, as if speaking to his mother. “We are playing at being you and father.” This Peter Pan keeps the child’s view of adulthood (pretending, embodying, needing) never far from view.
The stalwart team of six performers handles many roles and covers rocky terrain — from broad comedy needed for cartoon adults to a delicate touch for childhood fears. Entrancing Kelley Curran, sly and playful Brad Heberlee, blowsy and bumbling Edmund Lewis, quirky and quick Susannah Millonzi, sensual and slinky Zuzanna Szadkowski (delightfully evoking Melissa McCarthy) — not to mention Bedlam’s leader and the director of the production, Eric Tucker — take on children, adults, pirates, dogs and fairies with aplomb. It’s wonderful, for example, when the Darling children (like bespectacled Millonzi as Michael, when not playing Tinkerbell) all ask their mother (Szadkowski) for stories; or when Peter (like peripatetic Heberlee, when not playing family dog Nana with grace and charm) is drawn to the children’s bedroom for the bedtime stories; or when Peter tells Wendy that swallows build their nests in the eaves of houses in order to listen to those stories.
Another way to characterize the setting is as a virtual construction site. Designer John McDermott’s Neverland may not be magical and the Darling home may not be solid, but they’re edged with the kind of two-by-four wall frames covered with opaque plastic sheeting that heralds, say, a new building, complete with vapor barriers for insulation. A layer of grass forms the stage; lawn furniture occasionally serves as chairs. A bit of theatrical magic that involves sail sheeting comes midway through and is worth the price of admission.
But we’re also rooted in the physical, especially as Bedlam takes us to the land of almost-sexuality. Consider when Szadkowski, for example — either as Liza the servant or Mrs. Darling, it’s unclear — approaches Peter and plays at being alluring, in the way of adolescents verging on adulthood. Or the way that Tinkerbell’s entrance is deliciously and delicately handled by lighting designer Les Dickert and sound designer Eric Tucker by using wandering “tinkles,” flickering lights and a pinpoint spot on Wendy’s hands. (Equally delicious, Tinkerbell’s movements aren’t fussed with again, leaving the audience to intuit her.) Most dramatically and powerfully, no one even flies in this production. While Peter’s dialogue still instructs the Darling children that you can fly by wishing for it hard enough, we watch the children close their eyes and dream their way into the air and off to Neverland (“second to the right and then straight on till morning”), their feet solidly on the ground.
Musing on Barrie’s original work in this specific, spare aesthetic, with layers of literary jokes and references to past adaptations, requires prior knowledge of the original. We spend more time with Bedlam-crafted repetitions of exchanges between the Darling parents, or the children explicitly pretending to be their parents, than in in the more familiar journey of the Darlings off to a make-believe world of boys living in the woods and fighting pirates, yearning to return to their clean, warm beds and regular middle-class life. Some familiarity with the more linear original will assist navigating this haunting creation.