"Peter Pan" has always been as much a melancholy fairy tale for adults as an adventure story for children. And the Olney Theatre Center's production of the original 1904 J.M. Barrie play--not the famous musical of 50 years later--movingly evokes and balances both spheres. It's not a magical evening, due in part to co-directors Jim Petosa and David Bryan Jackson's interpretation of the material, but the lovingly designed show contains enough flights of fancy and pangs of heart to keep parent and kid alike in its thrall.

The timeless story of a boy who never wants to grow up, "Peter Pan" begins in the children's bedroom of the Darlings, an upper-class English family, where the title character (Carolyn Pasquantonio) seems to have lost his shadow. One night he comes creeping in with his sidekick, the fairy Tinker Bell (played by a red light), to find it. He succeeds, but he also ends up waking and meeting the three sleeping Darling kids--Wendy (Michelle Mulitz), John (Devron T. Young) and Michael (Gregory Droggitis).

He teaches them how to fly, and away they soar to Neverland, where Peter lives with his friends the Lost Boys, who are, like Peter, permanently separated from their families. Unlike Peter, they very much want a mother.

In this fantastical place, boys never, never grow up and there's much fun to be had. But there's also danger: Indians are afoot, and pirates, led by the evil Captain Hook (Traber Burns, doing a masterly job), are out to kill Peter and the Boys. But with the help of a hungry crocodile (Grady Weatherford, in one of many outstandingly witty costumes by Rosemary Pardee), Peter rids Neverland of Hook. But will he take the Darling kids back home? And will the Boys ever find a mother?

You really don't want to analyze any of this too closely, particularly if you have a Freudian bent (Burns doubles as Mr. Darling, the children's father). Better to treat it as a tale about the simple joys and fears of childhood, which is pretty much what Petosa and Jackson do. But they also point out a sorrow of growing up--the loss of a light, innocent spirit. In Barrie's world, wisdom and knowledge are scissors blades that clip wings, which is why the evening lands on such a heavily nostalgic note.

The scenes in the bedroom often feel prosaic and mechanical, though much effort is devoted to making them seem antic. Petosa and Jackson are trying too hard here, and the result is labored whimsy.

Conversely, when Daniel Conway's fabulous set opens up from a warm home to reveal a thrilling landscape of the imagination, the two directors are wonderfully inspired. (Special pieces of eight to whoever decided Captain Hook's hook should switch hands at intermission.) Virtually every scene with bad guys--in particular, one featuring a sewing pirate--is a delight.

As Peter, Pasquantonio uses the character's impishness to cover up the scar of having been abandoned and forgotten by his mother. It's an affecting performance, as is Helen Hedman's as Mrs. Darling. All the pirates--MaryBeth Wise, Christopher Lane, Peter Finnegan, Timothy Flynn and Harry A. Winter--should take a collective bow. The rest of the large cast is composed mostly of children, who acquit themselves admirably in the roles of, well, children.

Ron Ursano/The Chroma Group's sound design is beautifully expressive and awesomely well executed, sometimes resisting the script's sentimentality, while at other, appropriate times just going with it. Which is a good idea not just for scoring the show but also for watching it.

Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie. Directed by Jim Petosa and David Bryan Jackson. Lighting, Dan Covey. Through Dec. 30 at the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts. Call 301-924-3400.

CAPTION: Carolyn Pasquantonio soars as Peter Pan at the Olney Theatre Center.