Reviewer’s Note: I attended the second preview performance of this show (Thursday, October 7). Two by J.M. Barrie does not officially open to press until Saturday, October 9.
Although J.M. Barrie is best remembered for his stories about Peter Pan, he had a long and relatively distinguished career both before and after The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, the 1904 play that introduced his eternally youthful hero to the world. Anyone doubting Barrie’s considerable dramatic range—biased, perhaps, by grade-school memories of green tights, tinkling flashlights, and thick pirate accents—should head immediately to Columbia, where Rep Stage is presenting Two by J.M. Barrie, a delightful and unexpectedly poignant production of two of Barrie’s lesser known works: The New Word, a one-act, and the slightly longer The Old Lady Shows Her Medals.
Though Peter Pan and Captain Hook are no strangers to battle, the focus of these plays is a very different kind of war than the adventures that unfold in Never Never Land. As Lisa A. Wilde, Rep Stage’s resident dramaturg, writes in her program notes, “When Barrie had first created the lost boys and Peter Pan … he had no idea how lost the boys of the Great War would be.” In The New Word, a father says an awkward farewell to his son, a fresh-faced second lieutenant, on the eve of the young man’s departure for France. In The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, a quartet of London charwomen pass the time sharing scraps of hard-earned news about their sons in the trenches.
Yet ultimately these plays are not about lost but found boys—and not only boys but their mothers and fathers, themes made exquisitely clear by director Michael Stebbins and his accomplished cast. Bill Largess and Jason Odell Williams, The New Word’s father and son, respectively, pack years of strained encounters and evasions into each searching glance and aching silence; their long conversation seems as perilous as any artillery barrage, so that when at last they find common ground, their triumph is enhanced rather than diminished by the encroaching specter of war.
A more improbable relationship, though equally moving, is the subject of the second play. Maureen Kerrigan is magnificent as Mrs. Dowey, the old lady of the title, and Williams does double-duty as Private Kenneth Dowey, her adopted son—“adopted” for reasons that slowly reveal themselves when he appears, unannounced, on her doorstep. Kerrigan and Williams make an immensely satisfying pair—Kerrigan is continually blinking her eyes, as though straining to spot glimmers of hope in an otherwise drab existence, yet when inspired she moves with a dancer’s easy grace, and Williams locates the heart of an innocent beneath Kenneth’s battle-hardened exterior (all the more impressive when contrasted with his reserved second lieutenant).
The supporting casts are uniformly excellent, as are the various production elements. Valerie Lash is sweetly simple as a matron in The New Word and simpler still in The Old Lady. Marilyn Bennett and Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler give distinct personalities to Mrs. Dowey’s chattering friends. Christine Demuth is charming as The New Word’s adoring younger sister.
Daniel Ettinger’s turntable set and Terry Cobb’s versatile lighting design allow for a seamless transition between two beautifully detailed worlds. Melanie Clark’s authentic costumes range from crisp military khakis and stylish formalwear to working class rags and shawls. The play’s final scene, performed entirely through gesture, is a theatrical tour-de-force—Stebbins and Kerrigan, with assists from Ann Warren’s sound design and Liza Davies’s properties, invest the inevitable with new meaning and the melodramatic with genuine feeling.