nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
February 20, 2007
Director Tina Landau blends ghost-story spookiness with J.M. Barrie's special brand of arrested development in the Vineyard Theatre's new revival of Mary Rose. The man who so famously kept Peter Pan eternally young taps into the fountain of youth again, and this time not so happily. Barrie's meditation on loss and melancholy is given a splendid production by Landau and the rest of her company.
Set in a country house in Sussex, England, Mary Rose begins right after World War I. The house, long vacant and for sale, is said to be haunted. Still, Harry, a young Australian soldier just back from the war, wants to take a look at it. Not because he's interested in buying, but because he claims to have lived there more than twenty years earlier. That was long before Mrs. Otery, the current caretaker, arrived. But, one can see from the nervous way she acts that the rumors about the house may be true.
The play then flashes back over thirty years to show us the house's former inhabitants, the Morlands. Mrs. Morland does her knitting, while Mr. Morland debates the pedigree of fine art prints with the local clergyman, Mr. Amy. The Morlands' young daughter, Mary Rose, has just received a wedding proposal from her lifelong friend, Simon. Her parents are pleased, but feel compelled to tell Simon about a strange event from their daughter's past. It seems that ten years earlier, Mary Rose mysteriously disappeared on a small island in Scotland's Outer Hebrides—a six-acre isle called "The Island That Likes To Be Visited"—during a fishing trip with her father. When she was found nearly a month later, Mary Rose thought that only an hour had gone by, and couldn't say where she had been. The Morlands, unable to explain what happened, never told Mary Rose the truth.
Needless to say, once Mary Rose visits that small Scottish island again, after being married to Simon for several years, trouble begins anew. From there, Barrie charts a mournful course along which Mary Rose's disappearance and Harry's sojourn to the Sussex house eventually collide.
To say more would, I think, give too much of Mary Rose away. But, believe you me, this is spooky stuff, made more so by Landau's atmospheric staging. Borrowing liberally from a tradition encompassing everything from The Uninvited to The Ring and beyond, Landau's evocative use of shadowy lighting, stage composition, and foreshadowing produces a creepy physical production that makes lines like "...an island that had visitors would not need to want to be visited" all the more unsettling. The peeling wallpaper of James Schuette's set, Kevin Adams's candlelit illumination, Michael Krass's lovely period costumes, and Obadiah Eaves's minor key piano music all add to the goosebumps.
Landau also hints at something larger in Mary Rose by turning Barrie's detailed, prose-like stage directions into text for a newly-created Narrator (played beautifully by stage veteran Keir Dullea). The Narrator serves as the audience's guide into this strange, haunting world, much like Thornton Wilder's Stage Manager in Our Town, and puts things into a sobering cosmic perspective.
The only part of the play that falls short is its final scene, in which Barrie inexplicably shies away from the gut-wrenching catharsis he's been inching toward the rest of the time. I can't say too much without spoiling the whole thing, but two characters who have never really known each other finally reunite in a scene that should serve as the Mary Rose's emotional high point, but is written otherwise. Perhaps it's Barrie's point that such reunions never quite go as planned, but it ends an otherwise splendid play on a dramatically unsatisfying note.
In addition to Dullea, Mary Rose has a uniformly wonderful cast. Paige Howard is luminous and heartbreaking in the title role, and the rest of the company—Betsy Aidem, Susan Blommaert, Ian Brennan, Michael Countryman, Tom Riis Farrell, Darren Goldstein, and Richard Short—all deliver equally vivid and memorable performances.
Mary Rose is a telling glimpse at the darker side of Peter Pan's creator. Eternal youth is not all its cracked up to be, and Barrie's sorrowful examination of that idea is, for the most part, powerful stuff.