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Peter Pan

Jessica McKay and Eric Rawski in "Peter Pan", at New Phoenix Theatre in the Park.

Where dreams are born

For many people, seeing Peter Pan, the story of the boy who never grew up, has been the start of a lifelong love of the theater. In her autobiography, the great Katharine Cornell, who would become the First Lady of the American stage and the greatest actress of her generation, recalled that it was the childhood experience of seeing Maude Adams, America’s first Peter Pan, at Buffalo’s Star Theatre in 1907, that lured her to her profession. Cornell remembered being so giddy with excitement that she could barely look at the stage; she buried her face in the draperies of her box seat in the theater her father managed. Once the wonder of the story had begun to unfold, however, she drank in every moment, especially the parts where Peter and the children flew.

Peter Pan was a huge part of my growing up, too. I would “fly” from chair to chair in our living room to a scratchy 78 recording of the songs from the Disney film, which, in the days before home video, I had never seen. In fact, while I had seen many children’s plays, I knew Peter Pan only from the 1960 television version of the Broadway musical starring Mary Martin as Peter and Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. This was a brilliant production in every detail. The broadcast inspired me to plan a fifth birthday party to which I wore a Peter Pan costume lovingly made by my mother. My friends attended dressed as Indians or pirates. When we played “pin the Hook on the captain,” using the Disney version of the nefarious pirate, it irked me slightly that he sported a single hook, not the useful double-hook used by Cyril Ritchard on TV. To this day, I have unusual recall of the theatrical productions I have seen, inspired, I think, by the need to savor temporal pleasures in memory alone after just one viewing.

The current production of Peter Pan at the New Phoenix Theatre has all the enchantment it needs to beguile a new generation of theatergoers. Every moment is brimming with the playful invention of director Kelli Bocock-Natale, who uses the lack of technical facility in the humble New Phoenix space as an asset, inspiring dozens of handmade miracles that reveal themselves with delightful grace.

As the play begins, the theater is plunged into darkness and suddenly the air fills with a dozen little balls of colorful gyrating light—fairies, no doubt—and Tinkerbell herself, played with great feistiness and charm by diminutive Jessica McKay, floats through the air, illuminated by the twinkle lights in her fairy wings. It only takes a moment for our eyes to adjust, and we realize that the balls of light are toys held aloft by actors in the darkness, and that Miss McKay is riding on the shoulders of two others, but the spell has been cast and we are powerless to resist its magic.

The ensemble of actors capably recounts the sprawling adventures of the Darling children, Wendy, John, and Michael, who fly away to Never-never-land with Peter Pan one night, where they encounter mermaids, pirates, Indians, and fairies, and where they befriend Peter’s band of lost boys.

This version of the play, adapted by Britain’s Trevor Nunn and John Caird in the early 1980s, began a trend towards boys playing Peter. Peter had, traditionally, been played by a diminutive woman in pants. The first Peter Pan was Nina Boucicault (1867-1950), daughter of playwright Dion Boucicault, author of such hugely successful melodramas as The Streets of New York, The Streets of Dublin, and its various other versions. Maude Adams, of course, originated the role on Broadway and toured the nation, adding luster to her already luminous star power. Eva Le Gallienne would be the first Peter Pan to fly over the heads of the audience. Mary Martin buoyed Peter into the stratosphere as a musical, followed by Sandy Duncan, and finally Cathy Rigby, who is still flying through farewell tours as Peter.

R. J. Voltz is adorable as Peter in this production, walking the arguably sociopathic yet irresistibly charismatic line of the eternal man-child with humor and sensitivity. Unlike the musical, this version reminds us of the deeply moving contradictions of youth—its vulnerabilities and its invulnerabilities, its ephemeral and its eternal nature. Casting a man-boy in the role highlights these ambivalences. Believing he is about to drown, tied and abandoned to the rising tide by the pirates, Voltz, as Peter, cheerfully calls out that dying must be an amazing adventure, as the adults in the audience wince. (That sentiment, incidentally, was voiced by Charles Frohman, author of the first stage adaptation of Peter Pan, as he went down to his watery death on the Lusitania in 1915.) Wendy is sad to realize, when Peter’s returns to the Darling household have become more erratic, that in his childhood amnesia the boy has forgotten both Captain Hook and Tinkerbell.

Christina Golab, Kurt Erb, and James Robert Steiner are endearing and darling as the Darling children. Eric Rawski makes a marvelously tempestuous and childlike Captain Hook. Marie Hasselback-Costa is lovely as Mrs. Darling and heroic as Tiger Lily, who, unlike in the musical, does not survive this story. Christopher S. Parada makes great fun of his roles as beleaguered dog, Nana, and befuddled pirate, Smee. Jose Rivera and Brittany Kucala play the lost boys with winning charm. John Kruzer brings clarity and substance to his role as all-knowing storyteller and playfulness to his heavily tattooed pirate.

The great hero of the occasion is, of course, J. M. Barrie himself and his iconic and immortal creation, Peter Pan. Does this playful and captivating fellow still have the power to entice young theater goers?

As I left the theater, local actor Christian Brandjes and his wife Elizabeth Cushman Brandjes introduced me to their young sons. I had not seen these children since they were babies, being pushed in a stroller through the Bidwell farmers’ market. Each of the boys shook my hand like a proper English gentleman. When I asked their favorite part of the play, without hesitation or equivocation they told me, “Everything!”

“What fine boys,” I thought.

Of course, the special late night outing, accompanied not only by Mother and Father, but also by Grandmother and Grandfather, must certainly have added to their joy.

When the violation of bedtime was mentioned, in justification for the lateness of the hour, Grandma observed, “They’ll remember this for the rest of their lives.”

“What a wise woman,” I thought. And as the family departed, I thought, “What good parents! What a perfect family! What a wonderful city this is!”

Take your children to see Peter Pan.