BWW Reviews: The Mystery of MARY ROSE
I shall try not to reveal too many of Mary Rose’s secrets. As with all ghost stories, much of the pleasure in experiencing J. M. Barrie’s play—one of the last written by the creator of Peter Pan—lies in the discovery.
Briefly, then: James and Fanny Morland, a pair of respectable, good-hearted Victorians, have a daughter, Mary Rose. Mary Rose falls in love with Simon, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Before they can bless the union, however, the Morlands must tell Simon of a bizarre incident in their daughter’s past, something Mary Rose no longer remembers, but which has nevertheless marked her deeply—like “a touch of frost” on a young flower, Mrs. Morland suggests.
The tale is chilling, but Simon’s love for Mary Rose stays true, and they are happily married. Five years later, they visit the island where the incident happened—a tiny speck off the coast of Scotland—because Mary Rose has begun to feel an inexplicable longing to return. There, as the sun sets, the chilling thing happens again.
Twenty-three years pass, and then two more, but we never come closer to understanding the mystery … and neither, we begin to suspect, did Barrie. Therein lies the problem with Mary Rose—though at Rep Stage, where the play is running through November 18, the problem is not fatal. Barrie and Michael Stebbins, who directed the Rep Stage production, have spun so delicate a web, it cannot survive the sudden break of intermission. Characters pore continually over the past without shedding much light on it, yet for a long time I sat spellbound—the production design is exquisite, the dialogue is poetry, and the actors are charming and immensely likable. In Act Two, however, neither Barrie nor Stebbins is able to recapture that air of enchantment. The result is a puzzle without a solution—an ornament that ultimately feels hollow.
Yet how lovely an ornament! Most of the play is set at various times in a quaint Sussex drawing room. Scenic designer Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden and lighting designer Jay Herzog create a fully dimensional set that—with the addition or subtraction of a few pieces of furniture and a shift in color—morphs between a sun-dappled hub of life and a shadowy tomb. Celestine Ranney-Howes’s costumes and Ann Warren’s sound design—a mélange of stringed instruments, flowing water, and chirping birds—fill out this bygone world.
Occasionally the ambient sounds grow distracting or Warren’s design seems divorced from the action—characters exit stage-right or enter stage-center, yet the echoes and creaking floorboards that accompany their movements come from behind a stage-left curtain. For the most part, however, each design element blends seamlessly to cast the play’s spell. This is nowhere more thrilling than during the extended transition from the drawing room to the island—as the unit set disappears behind blue curtains and faraway music plays, stagehands wheel on trees and mossy stumps as the actors wander leisurely, like tourists freed from the trappings of home.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Barrie’s characters is how uniformly decent they are. Good intentions are not the easiest to play, but Stebbins and his actors clearly love these people, and they draw us into their fundamental integrity. Eric M. Messner does it twice—he plays father as well as son, and he succeeds in shaping two distinct yet equally strong men.
In the title role, Christine Demuth moves almost imperceptibly from uncanny innocent to bone-weary shade. As Mr. and Mrs. Morland, Bill Largess and Maureen Kerrigan likewise age poignantly over the play’s thirty years. So, in their own ways, do Adam Downs and Tony Tsendeas, who respectively play a highlander with spiritual yearnings and an old friend of the Morlands. Marilyn Bennett completes the cast as a sympathetic housekeeper.
One of Barrie’s key themes—not only in Mary Rose but also in tales of his most famous creation, Peter Pan—is the quiet ravaging of Time. One day we are young, and before we know how we are old. Yet Barrie does not wallow in gloom, and neither do his characters. Whether fleeing to timeless islands, like Peter and Mary Rose, or returning to the world of birth and decay, like Wendy and Simon, Barrie’s men, women, and children—equal parts courage and good humor—live honorably. Perhaps that is why the mystery driving the plot of Mary Rose left me unsatisfied—the characters demanded more.