Although he’ll always be most famous for his endearing “Peter Pan,” the prolific J.M. Barrie deserves wider recognition for his other creations. Rep Stage is doing its part to provide that recognition with the revival of two World War I-vintage plays that reveal Barrie’s knack for generating subtle emotional power.
There is much more than mere curiosity value here. Issues and values reflected in these gems have hardly been dulled by time. Wars still break out; men (and, of course, women now) go off to fight them, leaving people at home to worry and adapt.
In “The New World” (1915) and “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals” (1917), Barrie fashioned telling slices of English life during the Great War. He drew some of his inspiration from his own earlier life, and even more, it seems, from his concerns for the beloved boys who had been his surrogate sons since the late 1890s.
Deftly directed with evident affection by Michael Stebbins, the Rep Stage production of these one-acters makes for an absorbing theatrical experience.
“The New World” is the slenderer of the two pieces, but it still offers a good deal of substance, along with some sly wit. The action, confined to a London drawing room, involves
young “Rogie” Torrance on the eve of heading into the army. His mother wants him to have quality time alone with his father first, but this is a family with some major hang-ups about closeness. (That’s still very minable matter for a plot; a recent episode of the brilliant TV sitcom “Modern Family” touched on the same problem of a father unable to show affection.)
Bill Largess turns in a telling performance as the buttoned-up John Torrance, who dreads the prospect of a father-son chat, of ever letting on “that we care for one another.” Largess gets particularly effective mileage from a passage where Torrance confesses that he tried to prepare himself for enlistment, too, only to come face to face with an enemy he hadn’t expected – his own age.
Jason Odell Williams neatly captures Rogie’s mix of trepidation, long-suppressed tenderness and pride. Valerie Lash (Mrs. Torrance) and Christine Demuth (Emma) fill out the cast ably.
The full weight of the war seems far off in “The New World”; the foolish sense of romantic adventure still lingers in the air. By the time Barrie penned “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals,” no illusions were left. Well, almost none.
The central character, a charwoman named Mrs. Dowey, has no personal stake in the war. “It affected everybody but me,” she says. So she concocts a connection of her own, an imaginary loved one at the front, never expecting he could possibly materialize. Barrie cleverly sets up the most unlikely of scenarios, sprinkles it with humor and develops it with great poignancy.
Maureen Kerrigan shines as Mrs. Dowey. She’s a marvelous actress, so natural in voice and gesture, and she makes the character terribly affecting. The way she looks into a mirror, clutches a stack of letters tied with a ribbon, holds a champagne cork aloft like a trophy – all of these small details register deeply. In the extraordinary final scene, Kerrigan reaches a memorable height in the gentlest of ways.
Williams, who has something of a young Aiden Quinn’s looks and intensity, gives an impressive, involving performance as the Scotsman, Private Dowey, making the transition from cocky and annoyed to bemused and melted with abundant nuance.
There are colorful characterizations from Lash (Mrs. Haggerty), Marilyn Bennett (Mrs. Twymley) and, especially, Natalia Chavez Leimkuhler (Mrs. Haggerty) as the members of Mrs. Dowey’s tea klatch, who also learn something about themselves from the awful war. Largess handles his brief assignment (Mr. Willings) with flourish.
Daniel Ettinger’s straightforward sets evoke their time and place nicely; Mrs. Dowey’s humble kitchen table, with its mismatched chairs, is just right. Terry Cobb’s lighting is oddly harsh in “The New World,” more atmospheric in the second play. Some of Melanie Clark’s costumes suggest budget-mindedness, but they have the right flavor.
Music is effectively used throughout (Ann Warren did the sound design). “See the Conquering Hero Comes,” from Handel’s “Judas Maccabaeus,” becomes an ironic melodic thread; vintage recordings of World War I songs set the mood for each play. (I’d quibble about including a bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace,” though; that arrangement, so associated with the Vietnam era, sounds out of place.)
These unpretentious plays, devoid of melodrama and manipulation, provide fascinating snapshots of an era. The Rep Stage production brings them smartly into focus.
Performances continue through Oct. 24 at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre.
PHOTOS BT STAN BAROUH