A Peter Pan for Grown-Ups

Jackson Evans (on stairs), Amy Lawhorn, Benjamin Campbell, Trisha LaFache, Liza Burns, David Hemphill.

(Originally published in LA STAGE Times)

Peter Pan, the flying boy from Neverland, may never grow up, but with the looming West Coast premiere of Michael Lluberes’ play Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers, his story has officially left the kids’ table.

Blank Theatre is opening Lluberes’ adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s original play and novel, directed by Ovation winner Michael Matthews, Saturday at 2nd Stage Theatre in Hollywood.

Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers tells the familiar story of Peter Pan, Wendy, the Lost Boys and Captain Hook but re-imagines it for a modern audience, emphasizing the darker themes of family relationships, loss and violence present in Barrie’s work. Also, Captain Hook is a woman.

But this is still Peter Pan, so the play also includes flying, sword-fighting and other magical effects.

The day before the first preview, at the Hudson Theatre Café just down the street from the 2nd Stage Theatre, cast members Daniel Shawn Miller (Peter Pan), Liza Burns (Wendy) and Trisha LaFache (Captain Hook) recall being impressed by Lluberes’ radical take on the classic story of Peter Pan when they read the play for the first time.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is an ambitious play’ — the imagery, the ideas behind it. I thought this show had incredible potential,” Miller says. “I didn’t know how any of those things on the page were going to happen [onstage], but that’s what intrigued me about it. It was so not your run-of–the-mill show.”

For Burns, the play treads on sacred ground. She grew up loving the original book, musical and Disney movie, and thought Lluberes’ play was “weird” at first.

“But the more I read it and the more I got into it, I realized it’s a more direct way at the actual story than maybe some of the other versions of it,” Burns says. “So I ended up loving it a lot.”

“I didn’t think at all about the story of Peter Pan and the Darling family,” LaFache says. “I looked at it a lot more as a story about being afraid to grow up, and the beliefs you hold as a child versus as an adult looking back on being a child, and also being afraid of getting old. Which, living in Los Angeles, I think is a recurring theme.”

All three actors say they tried not to be influenced by previous portrayals of their characters, instead attempting to tap into the characters’ personalities and the defining themes laid out in Lluberes’ play.

Miller says the last thing he wanted to do was play the “idea” of Peter Pan, or the cartoon character with which most are already familiar. He drew more inspiration from Peter’s unusual upbringing and physicality.

“What I love about Peter Pan is he grew up on an island on his own accord. There’s no filter,” Miller says. “He’s just this wild, free spirit with no manners, which I had a lot of fun playing with and struggling with.”

Burns (and her cast mates, affectionately) recognize similarities between her personality and Wendy’s. She recalls feeling the same as Wendy when she was 12 years old, especially in terms of Wendy’s feelings toward Peter –  “that first-crush feeling of being horrible and wonderful all at the same time,” Burns says.

LaFache says she worried at first that she wouldn’t be able to connect to the traditionally male character of Captain Hook, but she found insight into Hook’s character within Lluberes’ text. And, of course, she was just excited to be playing the iconic role.

“I’m Captain Hook,” LaFache exclaims. “So it’s just a party. It’s a lot of work, but she’s a hoot.”

Although many may think of Peter Pan as a G-rated children’s story, Miller points out that Barrie included dark, even disturbing, themes in his original book. “There’s a pirate who loves to kill children. I mean that’s kind of messed up. And Peter Pan’s a kid who ran away to a faraway land and steals children,” he says.

But while Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers deals with these themes head-on, it also wrings comedy from them.

“When we first did the read-through, I didn’t realize how funny the play was until I read it out loud. We were all dying,” Miller says.

“I’m laughing backstage,” LaFache says.

In particular, the actors agree that playing children (many of the characters are under 10 years old) has been a challenge, but one that adds to the humor and honesty of the play. The key to playing a child, they say, is to keep their energy level “at a 10” all the time, to capture the intense vigor of childhood without seeming kitschy or unnatural.

But it hasn’t been the only challenge. The tight-knit cast of seven is still working out the complex technical elements of the play just a week before the premiere, and LaFache and Miller have learned an advanced sword fight. “These two don’t get to watch, but it’s nuts. It’s nuts,” Burns says emphatically.

In the 55-seat 2nd Stage Theatre, the cast assures, the audience will get to experience the action, romance, humor and special effects of the play up close and personal.

“Like it or not, it’s all up in your biz!” LaFache says.

“It’s all up in your biz,” Miller agrees. “There are swords in your face, people in your face. You can definitely see us all sweat. But I love theater of that size. It’s more intimate.”

For Peter Pan aficionados such as Burns and even those weary of the century-old story, Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers offers something new to the Neverland canon, the actors say — a more serious examination of the story’s universal themes of loss, love and growing up that other versions don’t always attempt.

“I think it adds pain to the story which is important,” Burns says. “Peter Pan is a lot about play and imagination and Neverland and childhood, but I think what this play does is it makes it about the other side as well — the dark side, which is really important and beautiful and sad.”

LaFache says the play explains the “why” of Peter Pan that she hasn’t seen in the other adaptations, and as a result theatergoers may find themselves relating to certain scenes or characters more deeply than they have previously.

“There is a truth to it that is so bittersweet and so honest,” she says.

“Because who hasn’t felt lonely? Who hasn’t felt abandoned?” Miller cuts in.

“Or lost or misunderstood?” LaFache says.

“Or like a kid who hasn’t grown up?” Burns adds. “That’s what I think is so cool. Every other version is a neat story about kids in England who go to a cool place with a boy – “

“Who have a great time, it’s an adventure,” Miller notes.

“But this is a story about growing up and about mothers which is literally applicable to everybody in the theater,” Burns continues. “The play is so loaded with stuff you can take away. Like [LaFache] said, you leave the theater feeling like you experienced something.”

Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers, 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038. Opens Saturday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through June 2. Tickets $30.www.theblank.com. 323-661-9827.

**All Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers production photos by Mary Ann Williams.

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