Last night we went to see Mary Rose by J.M. Barrie, yes, he of Peter Pan fame. I was intrigued because it has not been played in New York for over 50 years and is little known. And if I had known the background before I went, I would have been even more intrigued. In the theater I tried to read the biographical history of J.M. Barrie whilst two fur coat ladies scuffled over a petty disagreement a few seats away. Who knew that ladies over 60 from the Upper West Side would be so aggressive when they come downtown?
James Mathew Barrie's brother, his mother's favorite, died on the eve of his 14th birthday and his mother never recovered from the loss. In his mother's mind the son that died remained a child forever in her memory, never allowed to reach adulthood. James tried to fill the void in his mother's life, trying to speak like his brother and even wearing his clothes. Strangely, James stopped growing when he reached 5 feet tall, also remaining an ostensible child, never reaching the height of an adult. The idea of growing up and remaining a perpetual child had a significant impact on Barrie, most famously mainfested in the concept of the boy that never grew up, Peter Pan.
Mary Rose is the story of a girl who disappears strangely with no memory of time passing. The play explores the themes of love, ghosts, the trials of life and its impact, the loss of loved ones. Director Tina Landau chose to include the detailed descriptions by Barrie, as he wrote the play to be both read and performed. This was achieved by the presence of a narrator on stage, which added a lot of depth to the understanding of the story. However the narrator, played by Keir Dullea, did not do justice to the created role. He was shaky, garbled his words a few times too often and didn't have the story-telling command he should have had. On the whole, the acting was not great, and it let the play down. Paige Howard (Ron Howard's 21-year old daughter) was fairly good, capturing the intangible girl-like quality of the protagonist.
Nevertheless, it had my rapt attention for the entire play. I've been to a lot of plays recently, and made my annual pilgrimage to Stratford-Upon-Avon in December to see The Merry Wives of Windsor (with Judy Dench, Simmon Callow and Alistair McGowan) which I loathed. But not one play has literally had me leaning forwards, to get closer to the stage because I was so involved, as Mary Rose did. It is so well written, so poignant, so eerie. The use of location to emphasize the themes of loss and love are particularly effective, and I think that is one of the reason the passable acting didn't matter so much. The play begins with an empty, eerie house, devoid of love and any human element and then we switch to the house when it was full of love, family, life and laughter. The contrast highlights the underlying concepts and gives a strong feeling of transience and time passing. The location then switches from a drawing room of a house to the antithetical location of an island in the Outer Hebrides. A constant element is the presence of a fire, but the switch from the cosiness of a home to the elemental and exposed nature of an "unpredictable" island is a significant one.
Knowing Peter Pan and Mary Rose is like seeing Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and then later, The Tempest. All are centered around an underlying magic and mysticism, but the plays written in the winter of each author's life both have a more sinister, melancholy undercurrent, a sadness that comes with getting older. Both Peter Pan and Mary Rose tackle the concept of never growing up, but the former in a cavalier, hopeful manner, and the latter with a sense of finality, a wrought sadness.
Mary Rose is playing at the Vineyard Theater, 108 E 15th, New York City until March 18th.