A touching precursor to Peter Pan
By Jim Reiter
Has any literary figure attracted more artistic attention than Peter Pan? James M. Barrie’s boy who never grew up has spawned books, plays, musicals, movies, and cartoons, many purporting to describe the beginnings of the ageless character. Among them is The Lost Boy by the late Ronald Gabriel Paolillo, now running at Colonial Players through March 7.
Paolillo was an accomplished playwright and actor who became famous as Arnold Horshack in the 1970s TV comedy Welcome Back Kotter. The Lost Boy premiered in 2005 and is a clever fictionalization of how a real-life event — the accidental drowning of Barrie’s older brother Davey in a skating pond as the helpless 6-year-old Jamie looked on—may have led to the creation of Peter Pan.
The young and diminutive Barrie grows up in the hostile shadow of his mother’s enmity, made painfully clear when she tells him after the funeral that “the wrong son died.” He leaves for London, becomes a successful playwright and author who rubs elbows with the likes of Oscar Wilde, but remains diminutive in physical stature and self-esteem. On a visit back to his Scotland home he visits his brother’s grave, has a lively conversation with his dead sibling, and hatches the idea to write about a boy who never ages.
And while the idea comes from seeing Davey as the boy who will never grow up, its execution is sparked by another muse: Maureen O’Rourke, the harried but graceful wife of Sean, the local tavern owner who used to beat up Barrie when they were kids. Upon meeting Barrie at the tavern, the now jovial and friendly Sean invites Barrie home for the night to save him the trouble of traveling and waking his mother so late.
The buffoonish and wandering eyed Irishman is no match for his wife’s quiet intelligence, so the inevitable romantic sparks between Barrie and Maureen light intellectual ones as well. She asks him about what he’s working on, and his telling of the story of Peter Pan begins to trip the light fantastic.
Rick Estberg’s performance as Barrie is heart wrenching as the 6-year-old who couldn’t save his brother, funny as he parries back and forth with Sean and other characters, and captivating as he roams the stage unfolding the story of Neverland. The understatement of Estberg’s performance allows the characters he is creating seemingly on the spot to grab our attention and our hearts. He and Leslie Miller as Maureen have a palpable chemistry, and we are drawn in not only to his characters and storytelling as Barrie, but to Barrie and Maureen’s underlying story as well.
Shannon Benil plays Barrie’s mother deftly, holding tight to the toxic blame she lays at her son’s feet, but not allowing her character to fall into a caricature of evil. It’s a fine performance that even allows us to feel a smidge of sympathy for her.
As both Davey and Peter Pan, Chase Nester is appropriately young and foolish and careless yet sincere, full of joy and animated foolishness. He’s a joy to watch bounce across the stage. And Scott Sanders gives Sean an ebullient likeability that almost makes us forget he’s not a faithful husband.
Others in the cast ably play several roles, including Megan Henderson as Barrie’s self-centered actress wife and an ingratiatingly sarcastic but ultimately warm Tinker Bell; Edd Miller as the Old Crow and Captain Hook; and the trio of Emma Miller, Katia Rini and Abigail Traverson, who play fairies, characters, and even move set pieces around to prevent scene changes from slowing the action. Thanks to dialect coach BettyAnn Leeseberg-Lange, accents were impressive for being consistent, accurate, and understandable.
Director Joe Thompson smartly keeps the staging minimal yet effective, aided by clever set pieces that play almost as many roles as the actors do, from a gravesite to a bar to a boat to an island. Some even light up remotely as Peter bounces from one to the other.
I did find the timing of projections on the walls behind the audience at either end of Colonial’s rectangular stage to be a distraction. The audience would be rapt with attention as Estberg and the cast depicted engrossing stories on stage, but our eyes would suddenly be diverted by the flash of an illustration appearing in the middle of the story and disappearing only a few seconds later. Why break the storytelling bond between the audience and the actors?
And that bond is a tight one. The Lost Boy is an engaging tale, at times funny and heartwarming, at times heart wrenching. At Colonial Players, thanks to Thompson’s direction and some fine performances, it is, like its topic, always wondrous.
The Lost Boy runs about 2.5 hours with one intermission; through March 7. Tickets range from $18-$23, no assigned seating. Masks required. Visit tickets.thecolonialplayers.org or call 410-268-7373 for information.