The name of playwright J.M. Barrie is so closely associated with "Peter Pan" that his other plays are neglected.
Rep Stage has been doing its part to change that. It produced an evening of two one-act Barrie plays, "The New Word" and "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals," in 2010; now it's doing his full-length "Mary Rose."
These are well-crafted plays that deserve the renewed exposure. First staged in both London and New York in 1920 and only occasionally revived since then, "Mary Rose" is of additional interest because it has a loosely philosophical connection to "Peter Pan." The title character in "Peter Pan" refuses to grow up, while the title character in "Mary Rose," for mysterious reasons best discovered as you're watching the play, also seems unable to make the transition from youth to maturity.
"Mary Rose" tends to take its time telling its metaphysical story, making one wonder whether the bloom will be off this rose. The often-leisurely pace isn't entirely unwelcome, however, because you could do a lot worse than listening to whimsical and articulate British characters chat with each other.
James Morland (Bill Largess) and George Amy (Tony Tsendeas) are longtime friends and amateur art collectors who enjoy arguing over whether they've purchased work by famous artists at bargain prices. James' wife, Fanny (Maureen Kerrigan), quietly knits off to the side, but sometimes adds her opinions. Thank goodness their banter is enjoyable, because James and George have similar conversations in the first and third acts.
This ordinary domestic setting actually serves as an important backdrop to the story, because the Morlands have a daughter, 19-year-old Mary Rose (Christine Demuth), who is anything but ordinary. The beautiful and naive Mary Rose is being courted by Simon Blake (Eric M. Messner), who can't begin to realize the romantic complications that lie ahead.
It's difficult to discuss "Mary Rose" in a more detailed way without having to give multiple spoiler alerts, so suffice it to say that Mary Rose has an unusual life and let it go at that.
The time-skipping narrative has scenes set in 1889, 1894, 1917 and 1919. These scenes take place at the Morlands' English manor house and also on on isolated island in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, where a lively young Scotsman, Cameron (Adam Downs), provides local color.
Those disparate locations mean that the set design by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden undergoes a radical transformation as we go from the antiques-furnished drawing room at the Morland manor to a desolate island that only has a few lonely trees. And the drawing room itself undergoes several transformations with the passing decades.
Considering all of these changes, the Rep Stage production directed by Michael Stebbins smoothly moves from place to place and time to time. As importantly, it maintains a melancholy mood through all those transitions. There's a fundamental mystery that keeps you watching "Mary Rose," but what keeps you emotionally bound to the play is the ominous sadness of the story.
This production is anchored by Christine Demuth's frail and pale appearance as the lovely and somewhat ethereal title character. Mary Rose's delicate nature also is brought out by Celestine Ranney-Howes' costumes, Jay Herzog's lighting and Ann Warren's sound design. In other words, it's a very atmospheric production. For that matter, McFadden's set design also relies on translucent stage curtains framing that central drawing room; action played behind these curtains therefore has a dreamy quality.
Besides Demuth's persuasive performance, the other capable actors keep you immersed in the strange story. They're generally pretty good with the assorted English and Scottish accents.
The one partial exception is Eric M. Messner, who is fine as Simon Blake, but who is not so fine as a second character, Harry, because the attention that Messner devotes to Harry's quasi-Australian accent is at the expense of adequately projecting his voice out to the audience.
Drawbacks ranging from that one accent to the fact that the drawing room could be a bit more refined in the set construction are worth noting, but fortunately do not derail the story's momentum.
What ultimately matters is that this is a mature production about a young woman who has some maturity issues. It's a pleasure to see J.M. Barrie's relatively obscure play brought to life again.
The Rep Stage production of "Mary Rose" runs through Nov. 18 at Howard Community College's Studio Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Tickets are $15-$40. Call 443-518-1500 or go to http://www.repstage.org