Michael Stebbins had to grow up, but lately he’s been thinking about the boy who never did. Peter Pan’s undying, almost mythic legacy led Stebbins, the Producing Artistic Director at Rep Stage, to read more deeply into the works of J. M. Barrie. It was here that he discovered Mary Rose, a chilling and powerful late play of Barrie’s that took many of the themes of Peter Pan to darker, more haunting places.
Mary Rose is now playing at Rep Stage, under the direction of Stebbins, with seven actors. In a phone call last week, Stebbins walked us through some of the magic and mystery of the play, and of J. M. Barrie’s life. What seemed at first a ghost story quickly revealed itself to be a warmer, more human allegory than we’d expected.
Hunter: Barrie wrote Mary Rose toward the end of his career, right?
Michael: He started a couple of pieces after that, but Mary Rose is really his last major play. I’d say it’s a sort of swan song.
Most of us know Barrie as the writer of Peter Pan. Where does the story of Mary Rose take us that Peter Pan doesn’t?
Mary Rose has a sort of hair-raising quality to it. It turns out to be a very sad tale, although we’re fortunate that so much of Barrie’s writing is full of humor and heart-ache. Basically the theme of Mary Rose is: If you could have someone back again, what would it be like? Especially if you had no control over when they might return?
Peter Pan was written in 1904. Barrie had a string of hits after that, and then he wrote Mary Rose at the tail end of 1919. Now, Barrie wrote in order to understand events in his own life. He put so much of how he was feeling into his writing. But a lot changed between 1904 and 1919. The real-life boys he knew, who were the basis for the Lost Boys in Peter Pan, were nearly all gone — they were killed during the first World War.
So Mary Rose has a more wistful quality to it. We see Barrie musing on his desire to see those who have departed. He wonders what would happen if he could see them. It gives the play a haunting, lyrical quality.
How do you summarize the plot?
It’s hard to sum up without giving away too much. But it’s about a young girl, Mary Rose, who goes on vacation with her parents to the Hebrides islands in Scotland. And while she’s there she disappears. She’s missing for 30 days. And then, when she reappears, she doesn’t know that any time has passed since she left. A few years go by — she marries and has a child — and she takes a trip with her new family back to the island. And again she disappears, this time for 25 years. Everyone has aged considerably when she returns, thinking again that no time has passed. Her family has to reckon with that.
London loved J. B. Barrie when Mary Rose premiered there in 1920. The show ran for 398 performances — it was a hit. It came to Broadway the next year, where it ran for a long time and was positively received. But unfortunately the play isn’t produced very often.
What got you interested in Barrie?
I was living in New York for thirteen years, and I worked a few times with an off-Broadway theatre called the Mint Theatre Company. They’re interested in what other people would consider chestnuts, plays from the past that don’t get done anymore. But calling a show a chestnut can give it a bad rap, and a writer as skilled as Barrie — who writes elements of fantasy and fairy tales and lore into his plays — is timeless.
So I started reading a lot of Barrie when I was working at the Mint. I read everything I could get my hands on. I thought sharing the work of this man, who’s primarily known for one play, might encourage others to read his work and produce it.
I’m reading one of his books right now, from 1902, called “The Little White Bird.” The book contains the first mention of the Peter Pan character. It starts out very naturalistically, but then we’re introduced to fairies, and islands of talking birds. And you go along for the ride. Barrie’s plays were written mainly to entertain, but he also happened to be a fantastic writer.
He’s not afraid to use magic in his stories.
He gave other writers and playwrights permission to go to these new places. You would never know if it works unless you try it, I guess! I think he did a lot to re-think what could and could not be done onstage. In many ways, he paved the way for others.
Also, a lot of his plays deal with parent/child relationships, especially mother/child. On a personal note, I think of my own mother when I read J. M. Barrie. She passed away at the age of 60, when I was 25. That was the first time I experienced the death of a loved one. She was so accepting and supportive of everything about me. So that’s also what attracts me to Barrie, a writer who is so wistful in his examination of the family unit.
Tell me more about the team of actors working on this production.
Bill Largess plays the father of Mary Rose, Mr. Morland. Bill and I have a great rapport, and Rep Stage audiences have known him for 20 years. He’s an encyclopedia of theatre from this time period, and, like me, he’s a Barrie-phile. And Maureen Kerrigan has been lovely to work with as Mrs. Morland.
Christine Demuth plays Mary Rose. I’ve directed her in a variety of pieces, and when I was thinking of producing Mary Rose I had Christine in mind for the role. Adam Downs is in the show as a Scotsman named Cameron, who helps the family make these trips to the islands and who knows the stories of the disappearing people. And Eric Messner is in the show, in dual roles as an Australian named Harry and as Harry’s father Simon, who is an Englishman. Tony Tsendeas plays the reverend Amy, a friend of the Morland’s. And the final cast member is Marilyn Bennett, playing the caretaker of an old house.
It’s a great cast. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer group.
Earlier, we were talking about the haunting quality of this story. Have these questions of theme and style come up in rehearsal? How do you talk with actors about what kind of a play this is?
Well, there are some very comic scenes, which have a pull of their own. But the show has a feeling of longing as well. The way characters in the present talk about the past is colored by a lot of pain. So our job has been to take up all these characters’ memories, all this reflecting, and keep it very active. The characters are all talking of things of great importance, and looking for things they have lost. There’s a lot of human truth to it, and if you play it right the humor has much more potency as well.
Closes November 18, 2012
Rep Theatre at the Horowitz Center
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway
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2 hours 20 minutes with 1 intermission
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We’re also talking a lot about the fact that, at one point, 25 years have passed. How do we find that physicality for characters we meet in one year, but then see over the years that follow? There are a lot of great challenges for the actors, and for myself.
It’s also a challenge to play because the fantasy element is layered onto the lives of real people. Ghosts and people simply talk to each other. Ghosts used to be people, after all, so why not have these conversations? But these people are living in a realistic world, and they don’t know until they’re visited by a spirit that it’s anything other than the world they thought they were living in.
It’s interesting that Barrie was intrigued by parallel universes. Seances were very popular at his time.
Sounds darker than Peter Pan.
Another interesting fact: Around the time he wrote this play, Barrie had started writing with his left hand. I guess he had ‘writer’s cramp’ in his right hand. So he had to write Mary Rose with his left hand. Now, Barrie was born a left-hander, but as a child he was supposedly ‘cured’ of it. He grew up right-handed and never wrote with his left before.
So Mary Rose is the first play ‘from his left hand,’ and it’s darker and more disturbing than some of his earlier work. It’s as if it came out of a different part of his brain. That’s his own theory, at least. He credits this as the reason for the darkness of the piece. I thought that was curious.
The show has some real mystery to it, then. In both Barrie’s writing of the play and the play itself.
I find Mary Rose so fascinating partly because there’s not a lot of material to be found on the play. It’s been hard for us to track down a lot of background on the creation of this play, the history and the writing of it.
Some people call Mary Rose a ghost story, but it’s hard to label. It’s a tragic love story, with some comedy and romance, but it’s hard to pinpoint. Barrie writes with his heart on his sleeve, and it makes you laugh and cry at the same time. I don’t know of a lot of playwrights who can do that effectively.
Related: Michael Stebbins, juggling Rep Stage