Rep Stage revives another neglected gem by J.M. Barrie

J.M. Barrie may only be remembered for creating “Peter Pan,” but not if Rep Stage can do anything about it.

Two years ago, the company effectively dug up two rare one-acters by Barrie, “The New Word” and “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals,” both from the World War I era. This month, Rep Stage’s 20th anniversary season continues with another thoughtful revival, “Mary Rose,” written a year after that horrid war, when wounds and memories were still very fresh, tainting everyone and everything.

"You know how just a touch of frost may stop the growth of a plant and yet leave it blooming? It has sometimes seemed to me as if a cold finger had once touched my Mary Rose,” says her mother early in the play.

That chilling description of the title character must have hit audiences hard in 1920 when the play was premiered. So many people would have had images in their heads and hearts of the men who remained perpetually young, captured in the last photos taken of them before they headed to the fatal trenches of France.

Although the war is not front and center in “Mary Rose,” it’s always there. One of the first characters to appear is ...

an Australian veteran named Harry, whose return to a neglected English home in 1919 triggers the work’s flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Spanning several decades, “Mary Rose” covers familiar territory for Barrie — reluctantly departed childhood, the wonderland of the imagination, the essence of innocence.

Something strange happens to Mary Rose, at different stages of her life, while visiting the same tiny Scottish island. She disappears, only to reappear as inexplicably as she vanished. Time, it seems, stops for her during her absence, so her eventual return becomes even more mysterious.

Barrie occasionally gets bogged down with incident or dialogue (some of the latter is pretty creaky), but he generates a good deal of theatrical mileage from the ghost story at the heart of the drama. And he balances it with a bittersweet look at the people around Mary Rose who cannot escape the ever-ticking clock.

At the final preview performance I caught, the production, directed by Michael Stebbins, felt sluggish, which limited the impact of scenes requiring tension and suspense. Still, the play’s subtle power came though.

Except for her tendency to vary the dynamics in her speech patterns a little too suddenly and a little too often, Christine Demuth did an appealing job as the ever-naive Mary Rose, especially in the scene on “the island that likes to be visited.”

As Mary’s parents, Maureen Kerrigan and Bill Largess proved affecting throughout. Eric M. Messner caught the charm and concern of Mary’s fiancee Simon. He seemed a bit stiff in his other assignment as Harry.

Tony Tsendeas enriched the role of Mr. Amy, longtime friend of Mary’s father. The book-ended scenes for the two characters give the play some welcome lightness, along with an extra layer of nostalgia, and Tsendeas and Largess delivered those scenes endearingly.

Rounding out the cast ably were Adam Downs ass the eccentric Scotsman Cameron, who knows something of the mysterious island; and Marilyn Bennett, as the housekeeper Mrs. Otery.

Other than the tired use of shadowy figures miming action a few times, Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s straightforward set delivered sufficient atmosphere. Ann Warren’s sound design added considerably to Barrie’s haunted tale.

"Mary Rose" runs through Nov. 18.



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