Nothing says “Peter Pan” and “ravages of time” like an innocent character entering through a window, which is exactly what the apple-cheeked young title character does in the drama “Mary Rose.” Surely, you think, this cheerful lass is waltzing with death. After all, Mary Rose, like Peter and Wendy and Captain Hook, was created by J.M. Barrie.
Michael Stebbins, artistic director of Columbia’s Rep Stage, has developed a bit of a crush on Barrie that the 1920 “Mary Rose” coyly declines to requite. Two seasons ago Stebbins unearthed two Barrie one-acts, “The New World” and “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals,” and found rewarding humor and quiet, deep feeling in the writing.
“Mary Rose” proves more elusive. It doesn’t snuggle up as cozily to the languid pace that Stebbins again takes; Barrie’s play is too long to sustain this show’s intense, studied pauses. Or its stillness. And the dead moments. Which are meant to be fraught . . . but . . . aren’t.
Still, it’s the kind of minor misfire that’s worth the risk. Barrie’s obsessions, blowing warm and cold with breezes of love and death, remain intriguing, even if “Mary Rose” is a kind of “Peter Pan” without all the adventure. So much for growing up.
This much can be told: Mary (the beaming, girlish Christine Demuth) is about to be wed. But first her parents (the formal yet sympathetic Bill Largess and Maureen Kerrigan) have to disclose something to the groom (Eric M. Messner, a tenderhearted leading man) — something about her inexplicable disappearance for a time when she was 12.
You can guess at the supernatural twist, but there is still a whiff of suspense as the ugly little drawing room set (unaccountably rendered in a Mountain Dew yellow-green by designer Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden) glides away and reveals a little Scottish lake and island. Giant blue curtains are slowly pulled around the edges of the stage, and the watery shimmer of Jay Herzog’s lighting is just the tiniest bit unsettling.
The play takes leaps in time that are meant to be everyone’s undoing, and for one flickering “Is she dead?” moment, Barrie’s sense of grief twists at the heart. The show’s real ominousness, though, comes from the apprehensive style of the acting. Performers hesitate and stammer as if they’re afraid of knowing the truth, and this cast — many of them returning from the earlier Barrie affair — does this with a serious, slightly gobsmacked air.
The audience at Sunday afternoon’s performance listened like rapt kids hearing ghost stories around a fire, but on the way out you could hear murmurs about the slowness of the show’s 21 / 2 hours. That’s a fair assessment. “Mary Rose” is an original curveball choice, but the show’s atmosphere isn’t quite enveloping enough to sweep us all the way into Barrie’s Neverland.
By J.M. Barrie. Directed by Michael Stebbins. Costumes, Celestine Ranney-Howes; sound design, Ann Warren. With Adam Downs, Tony Tsendeas and Marilyn Bennett. About 21 / 2 hours. Through Nov. 18 at Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. Call 443-518-1500 or visit repstage.org.