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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Ask the average person what or who the title Mary Rose brings to mind, and you'd draw a blank from practically all. If you say that the author is J. M. Barrie (1860 — 1937) and ask for the name of a play he wrote, practically every answer will turn ot to be " Peter Pan." Yet, Barrie was a prolific playwright and when Mary Rose was first produced at the Haymarket Theatre in 1920 (for 433 performances) it was on the heels of a string of successes (Dear Brutus, The Admiral Crighton, What Every Woman Knows and, of course, Peter Pan). From the 1920s to the 1960s these gentle plays were mainstays of British repertory theater. However, except for the musical adaptation of the play about the legendary perennial boy, this is hardly the case today.
The reason Mary Rose, despite being a nifty ghost story, has been especially neglected is most likely that it's a rather enigmatic play — so much so that writer and theatrical designer and Barrie contemporary Dennis Mackail asserted that not even the author knew what the play meant. According to our London critic, the last time Londoners saw a production was in 1972 when Mia Farrow played the title role. (It was produced fleetingly on Broadway in 1921 and again in 1951).
If you get to the theater early enough to read director Tina Landau's excellent and enlightening notes about Barrie's life and the play's context (or saw Neverland, the biopic about Barrie starring Johnny Depp), you won't really find it all that hopelessly puzzling. Given our own current war which is daily adding to the many young lives lost, Mary Rose's aura of post-World War I melancholy clarifies its connection to the British people and Barrie's own attempt to deal with the loss of loved ones. (Barrie himself lost his beloved " adopted" son and his theatrical producer during the war.)
The trauma of war inflicted losses (plus those due to the flu epidemic) also fed into Barrie's lifelong yearning to replace the brother who died as a boy in his mother's heart and the consequent persistent fixation on the missing and dead being in a sort of limbo that leaves the living mourning them and yet longing to have them back. His twice disappearing Mary Rose, first as a girl and later as a young wife and mother, can thus be seen as a psychologically complex ghost whose second and longer disappearance turned her into a reverse Peter Pan— a symbol of all the mothers in search of their lost children.
Ms. Landau deserves our thanks for giving us a chance to have a look at this nearly forgotten ghost story. Her production is well cast and handsomely designed by James Schuette and with evocative incidental music by Obadiah Eaves. It would make an even stronger a case for taking the play out of mothballs if she'd left well enough alone instead of choosing to add a narrator. Her reasoning is sound enough — Barrie's scripts had the sort of narrative style that lent itself to being read as well as watched in performance. But seeing this as a " voice beckoning her to add a guide or narrator to welcome audiences into the play" and giving that "voice" human form is a needless distraction. It's a waste of actor Keir Dullea's talents and tends to interfere with the audience really losing itself in the story and gets in the way of other actors letting their characters speak for themselves.
Casting the young Mia Farrow must have been a no brainer choice for the above mentioned 1972 revival. While Paige Howard (daughter of director Ron Howard) is lovely and makes a creditable debut as Mary Rose, especially in her initial scenes. However, she lacks the ethereal delicacy the role calls for.
Despite the questionable addition of the Narrator this tale of another Never Never Land—in this case the misty Scottish island where legends of of inexplicable disappearances were as common as its natural beauties — is a fascinating theater piece with a good deal of resonance. The grief over the ill-fated Mary Rose is leavened by the scenes with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Morland (splendidly portrayed by Betsy Aiden and Michael Countryman) and the neighboring clergyman (Tom Riis Farrell) with whom Mr. Morland gets into regular disputes about their shared hobby of tracking down art at a bargain.
Darren Goldstein is quite endearing as Mary Rose's devoted, sea loving young husband Simon. Ms. Landau has also elicited nicely rendered portrayals (albeit with accents a bit too thick to easily catch every word) from Susan Blommaert as the crusty caretaker, Richard Short and Ian Brennan. Short plays a young Australian who has come to the now empty and for sale Morland house for reasons that will only become clear when all the hints scattered along the way are clarified. Brennan is excellent as as the young tenant farmer and minister to be on the misty Scottish island that twice swallows up Mary Rose and keeps her forever young.
Seeing this female variation of Peter Pan with its mothers and children coming to realize that they are forever lost to each other makes it easy to see it as more than a theatrical artefact and why Hitchcock was so keen to turn it into a film. While his dream went unrealized, it progressed to the point of his commisioning Jay Presson Allen to write a screen adaptation, a copy of which can be read at http://stevenderosa.com/writingwithhitchcock/scripts/mary_rose.pdf.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide