"The tragedy of childhood is that it ends all too quickly," James Matthew Barrie (Joe Barrett) says in The Man Who Was Peter Pan. He tells of meeting four young boys, the Davies brothers; how he becomes part of their lives; and how they become central to his. Barrie feels a connection to George (Bruce Barney), Peter (Tommy Walsh), Jack (Jordan Roth), and Michael (Nicholas Joy) that he doesn't have with other people - he revels in their rambunctiousness, encourages their creative impulses, and, unknowingly, lives vicariously through them. He becomes a kind of surrogate father to them, and develops a warm friendship with their mother, Sylvia (Holly Hawkins). Flying a kite with them becomes a shared family experience.
Knowing the boys gives him an enthusiasm for living he has either lost or never had. But neither is he in tune with some of the boys' real needs. When Peter gives him a story he's written, Barrie disparages it, and doesn't understand Peter's hurt. But sometimes he is just the right tonic -- when the boys discover a bottle of gin, his anger gives way to an understanding of the boys' need to explore and extend their horizons. Their drunkenness precipitates cross words between Sylvia and Barrie, but they reach an understanding that life is not always what they hope or expect it to be. Yet in spite of his occasional insights, when Barrie continues his ruminations on the nature of childhood, his introspection seems to extend only as far as bemoaning childhood's fleeting nature.
Barrett did well with the character of Barrie, but the play doesn't give him much room to grow or explore. Except for some sketchy details about Barrie's wife, we never learn much about his life or background, certainly not enough to know why why the boys meant so much to him. Barney, Walsh, Roth and Joy were terrifically exuberant as the young boys, full of need and longing, blossoming under Barrie's touch. Hawkins was touching as the widow who warms up to Barrie's interest in her young sons. In fact, the exuberance of the cast and the generally fast-paced direction of Bennett Windheim helped cover up gaps in the script. The setting was well-designed (by Dennis Eisenberg) to incorporate a study, a playground, a house, and even Paris, when Barrie takes the boys on a trip to the continent. Costumes (Agneta Eckemyr) and original music (Scott O'Brien) were evocative of the time and place. The visage of Queen Victoria as well as other images of the time looked over the playing area, placing the action but never interfering.
As some people like kittens but not cats, the character of Barrie doesn't seem to like the Davies brothers as young men as much as he liked them as boys. And without the boys' youthful high spirits, the play and the performances lost steam. The playwright touches on the theme of closeness between men - straightforward affection, saying "I love you" - but it doesn't jive with what has gone before. As an aging man, Barrie considers that he has the soul of a child - and he misses the children that the Davies boys formerly were. In a coda, the boys come back as youngsters flying their kites, and Barrie tearfully admits that he often thinks he sees the boys, but it is never them. (About 80 years later there will be another name for this, but The Man Who Was Peter Pan doesn't go there. Good thing, too.) In this depiction, J.M. Barrie thinks growing up is the end of the worthwhile part of life. However, the ending of Peter Pan shows the real Barrie understood that reality is much more complex.
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Copyright 1998 David Mackler