The story line of "Alice Lost in Wonderland" triggers a lot of basic fears. Fear of being confined against your will. Fear of forgetting. Fear of losing your own identity.
In Rob Winn Anderson's new play, which he's also directing, these fears are combined with a mystery — what is it that central character Jane can't remember? — and the general loopiness found in Lewis Carroll's story of young Alice and her trip down the rabbit hole.
It's not always the smoothest mix — the mystery drags at points, Jane's constant search for Alice becomes repetitive. Even the silliness, great fun on the whole, eventually takes on a certain sameness. But each element has moments to shine, and the whole package is wrapped up in a Beth Marshall Presents production of glorious theatricality.
A disquieting set, brilliant costumes and a surprise trick or two create a fantastical world on stage. Actress Becky Eck grounds that world in an emotional reality with a canny performance as Jane.
The audience meets Jane in a disquieting mental ward. Eerie giggling in the dark gives way to a throbbing heartbeat sound effect. Lights blink on and off to reveal the ward's patients. The audience soon learns that Jane, as in Doe, doesn't know who she is. All she knows is she needs to find Alice — Carroll's literary creation, whom Jane believes is real.
The other patients provide a sort of Greek chorus to Jane's quest, quoting Carroll's "The Jabberwocky," for example. With one exception, a depressed man known as Mouse, they aren't sharply drawn. This dehumanizes them — perhaps a deliberate comment by the writer on the way society treats the mentally ill — but it also makes them feel like placeholders until we get to Wonderland.
Eck's likable everywoman sensibility is essential to the audience's investment in Jane's struggle. Onstage the entire show, Eck's expressiveness makes theatergoers aware of what's racing through Jane's brain — even when the action is literally in Jane's mind.
In key supporting roles, Erik Nelson brings a simple poignancy to Mouse, and deep-voiced Meghan Fenner is a comically bellowing Queen — but more terrifying as a callous doctor.
Tom Mangieri's beautiful set perfectly straddles the line between grim reality and fairy tale. Molly Walz's costumes are imaginative without being obvious.
As in Carroll's novel, Anderson seems to be hoping that a whole lot of nonsense will add up to something greater. In a sincere moment, Mouse says solemnly "Even nonsense has sense in it."
I'm not certain I found the exact message the playwright wants to leave with his audience, though feeling compassion for the mentally ill is certainly part of it. So is facing fears, growing up, overcoming challenges. Perhaps this inventive production says it's up to us to figure out how best we can make our own journeys — even if they require a detour through Wonderland.
'Alice Lost In Wonderland'
• What: A Beth Marshall Presents world premiere of a play by Rob Winn Anderson, inspired by Lewis Carroll stories
• Length: 2:10, including intermission
• When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Monday, Oct 28; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 3
• Where: Garden Theatre, 160 W. Plant St., Winter Garden
• Tickets: $25; $21 students and seniors
• Call: 407-877-4736
• Online: gardentheatre.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun