Shortly after the play opens, the teenaged Mary agrees to be married to a pleasant fellow called Simon (Darren Goldstein), but she expresses her wishes to continue indulging her interest in childish things. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Morley (Michael Countryman and Betsy Aidem), will only approve the young couple's union after explaining to Simon that some years earlier Mary disappeared on an Outer Hebrides Island the family was visiting. She reappeared 20 days later, believing that barely a few hours had passed.
Unconcerned about the episode, Simon weds Mary, only to lose her a few years on when she disappears while they are vacationing on that same island. (James Shuette's evocative set consists of a period living-room with a back wall that slides away to reveal a grassy island.) Again, Mary eventually returns, but this time it's after 25 years, baffling her now-aged parents and husband -- especially since she believes her son, Harry, is age three, just as he was when she disappeared.
Perhaps because director Tina Landau considers the original play to be a bit dusty, she's taken a rather theatrical liberty with it. In a program note, she comments that Barrie's stage directions are so evocative that she decided to put them in the mouth of a narrator (Keir Dullea). What she leaves for the audience to discover is that the eloquent spokesman might have more at stake than being a mildly interested bystander. It's a clever addition, because it gives Mary Rose the twist needed to be that much more theatrically contemporary.
Landau elicits the requisite twists and turns from her sympathetic cast. Howard is vibrant in the earlier sequences and appropriately puzzled through the later ones. Countryman and Aidem are especially adroit in a second-act scene when they're joined in their amusing exchanges by family friend Mr. Amy (Tom Riis Farrell). Goldstein makes a heartbreakingly smooth transition from hopeful fiancé to grieving widower; Richard Short is cheerful and understanding as the grown-up Harry; Ian Brennan is also impressive as a thick-brogued Scottish cleric caught up in Mary Rose's weird comings and goings; and Dullea speaks the stage directions with affable grace.
Like Barrie's Peter Pan, Mary Rose takes a close look at the positives and negatives of eternal youth. Barrie's own history is a key to this recurring theme in his work. When he was young, his older brother died and he felt obliged to comfort his mother by becoming as much as possible like his missing sibling, who could be considered "a lost boy." He even stopped growing when he reached the height his brother attained. He must have understood, however, the necessity of growing up, because the urgent message is embedded in both Peter Pan and Mary Rose.
As much as Barrie's personal history infuses Mary Rose, world history is another clue to the play's origins. Written just after World War I -- when thousands of Englishmen had vanished from the population -- Mary Rose recognized that a need to move on must outstrip the longing for the return of the dead. That's a message as current now as it was 87 years ago.