Children’s theatre is very easy and very hard. Very easy because, if you let them, the children do so much of the work for you. They want to be seized bodily and brought elsewhere, someplace magical, and they bring enough energy to lift the performers right off the ground. On the other hand, it’s very hard because if you have failed in your spell-weaving, they will let you with brutal frankness. I remember going to see a friend in a tiny summer stock production of Charlotte’s Web in which he played Wilbur. Out he comes and one of the kids scowls at him. “That’s not a pig!” cries the little twerp. “That’s a grownup!”
Well, if you want to see theatre for children – and adults – done about as perfectly as it can be, go see Stratford’s current production of Peter Pan.
This is the straight play, not the musical version, an adaptation of Barrie’s original text. The major innovation of this production is to add a narrator character, Barrie himself, played with an exquisite meld of delight and rue by Tom McCamus who doubles as Captain Hook. This decision was a stroke of genius; by adding Barrie, not only are multiple opportunities provided for breaking the frame of the play (which, of course, only increases the magic – if the characters in Peter Pan can escape into Barrie’s frame, and vice versa, who’s to say that they won’t escape all the way into the audience – or we into Neverland), but a locus is found for all the adult emotions around our feelings about childhood, which allows the play to keep Neverland clean of such intrusions and fully surrender to its own magic.
The Pan we are given by Michael Therriault is a bit younger than we are used to – a bit more emphatically on the lee side of puberty – and that may disappoint tweenage girls seeking a crush-rival to Justin Bieber. But it’s all to the good for the play, I think. Michael Therriault’s Pan really is looking for one thing from Wendy: he wants her as a mother. That’s not a firm basis for either an adult relationship or an adolescent one, and Barrie (who, I understand, was looking for much the same for himself) knows it, as does the play. And while he is a young Pan, he is anything but simple. There is an aching sadness under the magic of Neverland, and Therriault fully brings it out. When he says, “to die would be an awfully big adventure,” there’s rather a bit more in his voice than innocence and bravado.
The rest of the cast fully matches the two principal males. Our introduction to the Darling family is a tour-de-force for all members, from Laura Condlln’s concerned Mrs. Darling down to Jay Schramek’s commanding yet frisky Nana, and Sanjay Talwar absolutely stole my heart as Mr. Darling, desperately wanting to be admired and doing precisely the thing most likely to deny him what he so craves. Sara Topham’s surgically precise delivery, which in the past has sometimes gotten in the way of characterization, here perfectly suits Wendy, swollen equally with the desire for wonder and a yen for domesticity that rises to the level of ambition. Wendy’s emotions are quite simple to us, but so complex for her, and you can see the whole range surging through Sara’s body – it is a perfect match of actor and role. More than ever, I want to see Ms. Topham take on one of Wendy’s dark counterparts in the Shakespearean canon – Helena, say, from All’s Well, another play about a girl determined to grow up and to catch a man who, though vastly less winning than Pan, is also determined to remain a boy. And Paul Dunn and Stacie Steadman charm equally as the temperamentally Wendy’s temperamentally opposite brothers, John and Michael. And the lost boys! From Nibs to Tootles, each is marvelously individuated, but the prize has to go to Shane Carty’s touching portrayal of Slightly Soiled, the only one who remembers life on the mainland (or so he thinks).
And the sets! The show-stopper is the stage-filling pirate ship that looms out of the mists to jut out well into the audience, and provides the scene for the final confrontation between Pan and Hook. But for my money, the most wonderful is maroon rock, where Laura Condlln’s mermaid suns herself as Wendy, Peter and the boys “swim” around in a fabric sea. And any adult, at the end of the show, when the Darling children finally return home, and the Darling home melts away to leave Barrie confronting Peter, both now barred from the nursery – well, any adult who does not weep with Mrs. Darling must have no children she loves and fears losing, and any adult who does not weep with Barrie and Peter has no recollection of the childhood he himself has had to lose.
It’s a tour-de-force. If you can still get tickets, go see it.