Even if it weren't recently the 100th anniversary of James M. Barrie's bittersweet ode to childhood innocence, "Peter Pan," the renewed interest in the story and its author, brought to the screen in last year's tear-jerker "Finding Neverland," would make perfect sense. Former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby, who stars in this week's Wolf Trap presentation of the family favorite, says the show's message is fresh as it ever was.

Talking from a hotel room during this, her farewell national tour in the title role, Rigby credited Barrie for capturing "that longing for eternal youth, that longing to keep your children safe and secure. . . . As much as we want our children to grow up happy and healthy and productive and all of that, there's a part of us that just wants to hold them in our arms and say, 'Oh, if you could just stay like this forever.' "

At a time of international upheaval and scary headlines, who wouldn't want to run away to an island of pirates, mermaids and Indians, especially when the trip is accompanied by such wish-fulfillment melodies as "I'm Flying" and "I Won't Grow Up"?

Rigby has arguably logged more frequent-flier miles than any other actress as Peter, earning a Tony nomination when she starred in the 1991 Broadway edition, reviving it in 1998 and appearing in an Emmy Award-winning television version in 2000. But she was no Broadway baby who dreamed of being a star of the stage. Her dreams were more likely of gracing a Wheaties box, and she came darned close. Rigby is the first American woman to win an individual medal in World Gymnastics competition -- a silver in 1970.

"When I did gymnastics, it was so all-encompassing, and training was six hours a day, I really didn't think I would be doing anything else," she recalled. Her childhood exposure to show tunes came mainly in the background, hearing music fron such shows as "West Side Story" and "Funny Girl" as she trained.

After her athletic career ended, she worked as a sports commentator for ABC, but she also knew it was time to explore new possibilities. "When you retire at 19, you better find something else to do, so I just started studying voice and acting. Probably the thing that makes you good at anything is that obsessive need to work really hard and be the best you can be, and that paid off."

She studied for seven years before making her professional debut in 1981 as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz." She has starred in national tours of "Annie Get Your Gun," "Paint Your Wagon," "They're Playing Our Song" and, more recently, in the musical "Seussical," as the Cat in the Hat.

True to her gymnast's past, Rigby made the leap to her new career with grace, earning critical praise along with her Tony nomination, although she said that she never wanted to see the reviews. "I went from being judged by judges to reviewers . . . I can't look at the score -- the review -- because it would change my performance, and I have to rely on, for lack of a better word, my [theatre] 'coaches.' "

Rigby is the star in a veteran cast that includes, as Captain Hook, Howard McGillan, a Broadway veteran whose credits include the title role in "The Phantom of the Opera," as well as "The Secret Garden" and "She Loves Me," and Elisa Sagardia, reprising the role of Wendy, which she performed on Broadway, national tour and television. There's also a heavy family vibe onstage. Rigby's son, Ryan Mason, plays Nana the dog; one daughter, Theresa McCoy, plays Wendy's daughter, Jane; another, Kaitlin McCoy, doubles as a pirate and Indian. Her nephew Gavin Leatherwood plays John Darling; her husband, Tom McCoy, is the producer; and there are in-laws and siblings in various behind-the-scenes roles.

Rigby admitted she needed some persuasion to come back to the role. "I didn't want it ever to become stale. I didn't want to ever do it half-way or without the enthusiasm that it deserves." But the 100th anniversary of Barrie's original play inspired her. "I thought, this is the perfect time to, you know, go out flying."

The flying itself may be the one thing about "Peter Pan" that has changed over the years. Referring to the production guys who control her harness, Rigby said, "Randy and Paul -- the two guys that fly me -- are so brilliant at what they do. You're as good as the people who fly you, and we are just in such sync with each other. There are things that we're doing now that I didn't even dream of doing before."

That's how you earn a perfect 10 -- even if you don't look at the score.


The Filene Center is at 1551 Trap Rd. Ticket prices vary based on performance date and time, starting at $18 for general admission to the lawn and ranging from $34 to $65 for reserved seats in the pavilion. Tickets can be purchased at the Filene Center box office, by calling Tickets.com at 877-WOLFTRAP, or online at www.wolftrap.org. For more information, call Wolf Trap at 703-255-1868.

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Cathy Rigby hopes to "go out flying" as Peter Pan at Wolf Trap.