J. M. Barrie authored a treasure trove of other note-worthy plays along with the age-defying Peter Pan. The rarely seen one-acts currently playing at Rep Stage are threaded together with a focus on the families left behind during the “Great War” while their young men gallantly fought for their beloved homeland.
What makes the plays so appealing is that Barrie provides tantalizing glimpses of modern emotional sensibility that peek out from the British early 1900’s stiff upper lip mentality. This is the very beginning of the war before the haggard troops start to fall in massive casualties and the expanding encroachment of the enemy is still far away. Despite the innocence and naiveté of those first battalions, the unshakeable resilience of the Brits capable of persevering through the Blitz shines through. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and Rep Stage has all the right tools to excavate these treasured moments of emotional fortitude for all to see. Keep the Home Fires Burning indeed.
Even the title of the first piece, The New Word, shows the British understated nuance for all things emotional, and in this era of letting it all hang out and drip over buckets, it’s quite refreshing. The “2nd Lieutenant” term meant nothing to the Torrence family until their son comes of age and enlists, and tries on his uniform before leaving with his regiment the next morning. The family gathering the night before is a final opportunity for a father and son, with a little nudging from “Mater”, played with glorious aplomb by founding artistic director Valerie Lash, to make peace with each other and say goodbye.
Bill Largess plays Mr. John Torrence with a measured and deliberate stance of one who bears the legacy of upper crusted gentility. He is the only way he knows how to be, yet he’s sensitive to his wife’s urgings to connect with their son, and in remarkable moments that’s always delightful to catch on stage, he discovers his own longings for his son’s affections. Jason Odell Williams as young Roger Torrence says more in awkward pauses and whimsical expressions than most could say in volumes of text. He winces painfully at the prospect that Father will “feel him up,” and while they don’t embrace, they manage to get as close as possible when the young man uses an endearing expression, apparently for the first time before exiting. The scene is quite touching and sets the tone for the next piece beautifully.
In The Old Lady Shows Off Her Medals, Maureen Kerrigan shines in her role as Mrs. Dowey clucking along with her gaggle of fellow charwomen before they grab their mops and buckets for strong day street labor. As scrub women, Marilyn Bennett, Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler and Valerie Lash again, who whips out an entirely opposite, dull-witted social personae from her first incarnation, brag about their sons in service on the front line with pride and familiarity. Mrs. Dowey displays extraordinary pride when bragging about her son stationed in a particularly dangerous battalion noted for its fearlessness. When the vicar, again played convincingly by Largess, reports that he spotted the son on leave and that he’ll be home soon, Mrs. Dowey looks squeamishly uncomfortable. Rather than spoil the delicate turn of events and discoveries, suffice it to say that secrets are revealed and the “mother and son” relationship is not what it was purported to be. Instead, the characters have to devise their own definition of what they mean to each other, shape and clarify their emotional bond, and accept the consequences of caring and sharing their lives.
What keeps the story line from feeling contrived are stalwart performances by the two lead actors. Kerrigan delivers her lines with energetic, quirky expressions and such woeful longing for her life’s dream that she can hardly contain herself. Her entire being bounces with anticipation and she nearly explodes with excitement about the possibility of conjuring up “a son” and taking on a maternal role. As young Private Dowey, Jason Odell Williams delivers with equally matched intensity for an extraordinary duo performance. His character transitions from angrily unapproachable, to skeptical boarder, to an endearing alliance with “the old lady,” in the most exquisite Scottish brogue this side of Craig Ferguson. The ending scene between the two, and the final moments of Mrs. Dowey treasuring her medals are among the finest that you will see around town, thanks to director Michael Stebbin’s tender handiwork.
The set and costume designers Daniel Ettinger and Melanie Clark, did double duty on this one, since the scenes depicted in the pieces are on opposite ends of the social spectrum. Having an actual curtain sets the tone for the period piece—that it’s a semi-circular concave thrusts the action a bit into the audience for an intimate and engaging effect. The well stocked parlor with fireplace, soft lighting and traditional portraits in the first act contrast with the smudged, dark, dreary bare-boned minimal set in Act 2 where the women sit around a roughly hued, sturdy table accessorized by an assortment of buckets, mops and rags.
In an interesting statement about the commanding role of tea in the society, despite the ragamuffin existence, the women use a delicate floral china tea set –obviously a bare necessity for a quality life no matter the fiscal circumstances. Costumer Clark displayed enormous capability in designing a range of period dress from Mater’s beautiful bountiful dressing gown, to her son’s full commanding regalia; to the well warn scrubbing dresses and bonnets of the working women, and the perfectly suited Private Dowey in splendid Scottish attire of the Black Watch regiment. .
Stebbins’ appreciation of the text is evident—“On the surface [Barrie’s] writing is very accessible, familiar… but then there is a realization of the depth, the intricacies, and the tenderness that Barrie is able to bring from the action on the stage directly into the hearts of the audience. So the ordinary is suddenly extraordinary” and even luminescent when done well. That’s what happens here.
These Two By J.M. Barrie at Rep Stage are filled with beautifully written and nuanced passages relaying a society’s unshakeable resilience and fortitude that will linger in sepia images long after the final curtain.
Two by J. M. Barrie
Directed by Michael Stebbins
Produced by Rep Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Two by J.M. Barrie plays thru Oct 24, 2010 at Rep Stage, Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway • Columbia, Maryland.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.
TWO BY J.M. BARRIE
- Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
- Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
- Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Brent Englar . BroadwayWorld