Review: ‘Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers’ at H Street Playhouse

February 16, 2012

It’s a nasty drop from the warm and fuzzy Darling family of the popular Broadway musical version of “Peter Pan” to the suffering brood of dramatist Michael Lluberes’s new adaptation, “Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers.” Here, Mrs. Darling (Lisa Hodsoll), her cheeks streaked with eye makeup, is so grief-stricken over the death of her youngest, Michael — yes, he dies in infancy in this retelling — that she climbs onto the windowsill, contemplating ending it all.

No Mr. Darling emerges to comfort her or the surviving children, mournful John (Joshua Rosenblum) and plucky Wendy (Megan Graves). And woe to dog-loving fanciers of J.M. Barrie’s original Victorian-era stories and play: Nana, the family’s canine guardian, is nowhere to be found on the premises of the H Street Playhouse, where No Rules Theatre Company is unveiling this world premiere.

If your temperament is suited to some of the colder considerations of “Peter Pan” — the beloved tale of the boy who defies nature by refusing to grow up — then this inventive though uneven production, written and directed by Lluberes, will strike you as a novel spin on a dramatic chestnut. As embodied by the economical cast of seven, some of the various buccaneers, Indians and Lost Boys are more scrupulously rendered than others; while Hodsoll is affecting as Mrs. Darling, her vocally shrill Captain Hook comes across a few pints short of bloodthirsty.

The play’s staging in the compact Playhouse space doesn’t always allow for the most graceful of scene changes or athletic of sword fights. And during a few talky stretches of the long first act, one wishes that the pirate captain might from time to time level that hook at the script.

Still, Lluberes takes an admirable stab at enveloping the two worlds of the story — the Darling household and Neverland — in a unifying starkness, and as a result, makes it clear how thoroughly this scarred Wendy and Peter (a persuasively childlike John Evans Reese) find consolation in each other’s realities. The nifty concept behind Daniel Pinha’s set reinforces the notion that Neverland is never very far away: With the addition of a few bits of flora, the shabby Darling nursery becomes the messy domain of Peter and the Lost Boys, dressed in evocative rags by costume designer Brandon R. Williams. And doors of various shapes in the flimsy nursery wall open to accommodate exits and entrances, and just as vitally, an impression of the terrifyingly infinite, starry night sky.

Peter Pan’s eternal youthfulness inspires one adaptation after another. In 2007, Arena Stage hosted the experimental Mabou Mines troupe’s “Peter and Wendy” with its elegant rendering of the Lost Boys as puppets, and soon to show up on Broadway is “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which provides a dark origin story for Peter. Is it our fears of growing old or an ongoing bittersweet romance with childhood that stokes our curiosity about him?

As indicated in the title of No Rules’s production, the playwright homes in on a vengeful side to Peter, and the idea that he’s not so much providing a haven for Lost Boys as keeping them out of the clutches of a society that disdains them. Several times, Lluberes has him reiterate his loathing of mothers — chiefly, the one he thinks abandoned him — even as he tries to turn a little girl into one. Graves, by the way, manages in excellent fashion to convey both Wendy’s girlish and maternal fancies.

Reese, in his portrayal of Peter’s willfulness and boyish energy, confers on the character a becoming agelessness. It makes eminent sense, too, on this occasion to have Peter’s most dastardly adversary played by a woman — and by the actress who also portrays Mrs. Darling, at that. The device adds a layer of poignant clarity to Peter’s hollow victory over mothers, as he steals their daughters time and again, but in the end always loses them to time itself.

Though they must deal with some of the production’s technical klutziness, the three actors who play all the assorted pirates and Lost Boys — Adam Downs, Maya Jackson and especially Nathaniel Mendez — acquit themselves with distinction. After a bit of tactical tightening and trimming of “The Boy Who Hated Mothers,” their contributions, along with other facets of the show, might seem all the more impressive.

Peter Pan: The BoyWho Hated Mothers

adapted and directed by Michael Lluberes. Lighting, Carrie Wood; sound and original music, Elisheba Ittoop; props, Eric Reynolds; fight choreography, Casey Kaleba. About 2½ hours. Through March 3 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE.
Visit www.norulestheatre.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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