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Richard Easton and Aaron Krohn in "The New Word"
(Photo © Richard Termine)
There are those who maintain that the fame of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan has effectively distracted attention from the playwright's more serious works. They've undoubtedly got it right -- but they've also undoubtedly got it wrong. While Peter Pan may be more popular than most plays written in the 20th century, there are ways of looking at the classic piece of children's entertainment as very serious, indeed. Aside from the fact that it considers the problem of a youngster refusing to grow up and thereby condemning himself to Neverland, there is also Barrie's dealing with lost boys in search of a mother -- not a light-hearted subject.

So it's possible to suggest that, in the "serious" work that Peter Pan supposedly overshadows, Barrie is revisiting in more realistic settings some of the themes of the earlier piece. He certainly does just that in Echoes of the War, the Mint Theater Company's estimable production of what the outfit is calling, perhaps too accurately, "two short (and sweet) plays." In "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals," there is indeed a lost boy in search of a mother, as well as a childless woman in search of a son. In the curtain-raiser "The New Word," a father is searching for a way to convey love to a son who, for his part, would like to be able to get through to his dad.

This pairing of plays underlines the fact that the need for parent-child connection was an overriding concern for Barrie. That concern may even be construed as overshadowing the surface intent of the one-acts. These works were Barrie's response to World War I as it at first galvanized the Emerald Isle citizens and eventually blighted Blighty. ("Blighty" is an expression that the father in "The New Word" uses.) "The New Word" was written in 1915, when morale was still high among the English and mothers still sent their sons to the trenches in confidence that extra pairs of socks would be an effective safeguard. "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals" -- once closely associated with beloved British music hall performer Gracie Fields, who received a 1956 Emmy nomination for her performance in a television version -- was introduced in 1917, when the death statistics were mounting and it began to look as if an entire generation of young men could be obliterated.

In "The New World," Roger Torrance (Aaron Krohn) has been given the rank of second lieutenant (pronounced "lef-tenant," of course) and is on the verge of shipping out. Appearing before his family in uniform for the first time, he dazzles his emotional mother (Anne-Marie Cusson) and sister Emma (Jenny Strassburg) but only causes his father (Richard Easton) to restrain a natural bent toward flippancy. Mrs. Torrance having contrived to leave the men alone, the men's halting conversation -- during which they discover their shared appreciation for one another -- is the bulk of the play. Skillfully constructed by Barrie to be simultaneously funny and poignant, the sketch probably captures what went on in myriad living rooms during this tense period, with a bit of English treacle thrown in. It's two men trying to allow their stiff upper lips to relax, if only for a moment, at a time when the conventional stiffener wasn't Botox but ingrained behavior.

Mrs. Dowey (Frances Sternhagen) in "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals" matches her charlady friends Mrs. Twymley (Kathrine McGrath), Mrs. Mickleham (Pat Nesbit), and the Haggarty Woman (Mary Ellen Ashley) letter for letter with news from their fighting sons. The catch is revealed, however, when a Private Dowey (Gareth Saxe) is brought into Mrs. Dowey's humble abode by a local cleric, Mr. Willings (Richard Easton). He turns out to be an orphan and Mrs. Dowey is shown to be living a lie that she concocted because she needed to be as proud of someone as her chums are. Luckily for her, the ladies are gone and don't learn the news. By the time they reappear, the abashed Mrs. Dowey and Private Kenneth Dowey -- a kidder with a good heart -- have found the kind of shared affection that allows them to form a mother-son understanding. They've broken down the same barriers that the Torrance men have in the same occasionally sentimental manner. Incidentally, the medals of the title are explained by the closing sequence, which implies with some subtlety just how sorrowful the war had become by the 1918 armistice.

Gareth Saxe and Frances Sternhagen
in "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals"
(Photo © Richard Termine)
"The New Word" and "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals" have been directed for the feeling in them by Eleanor Reissa, herself an actor of uncommon feeling. It can't be said that she's underplayed their recurrent sentimentality but, then again, there may have been no way to disguise how intermittently sweet -- to use the Mint's chosen adjective -- Barrie made them. Sometimes bittersweet, but still sweet. For that reason, the plays seem more dated now than Reissa and Mint artistic director Jonathan Bank might want to admit. All the same, they are well worth dusting off and putting on Vicki R. Davis's almost adaptable set. Davis has been charged with making one basic area operate as, sequentially, a middle-class and lower-class home; it can't quite be done convincingly but it's done well enough to cause no lingering problems, and there's something to be said for the William Morris knock-off wallpaper that dominates upstage.

The plays' casts, with only the trustworthy and impeccable Richard Easton appearing in both pieces, are thoroughly good. Easton's slyly mocking father engaging with Aaron Krohn's suspicious, defensive son is a delightful encounter. It's equaled when Frances Sternhagen's embarrassed Mrs. Dowey tries to unbend Gareth Saxe's Private Dowey, a Scotsman in kilts (costumes by Debra Stein) who himself has gruff appeal to spare. Barrie famously wrote of charm in What Every Woman Knows, opining that women who have it don't require anything else and that, for women who don't have it, nothing will substitute. Both Sternhagen and Saxe have it, and it makes their playing memorable. In their supporting roles, Mary Ellen Ashley, Anne-Marie Cusson, Kathrine McGrath, Pat Nesbit, and Jenny Strassburg allow no flaws.

Yes, "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals" and "The New Word" are echoes of The Great War on the home front. They also evoke the winds of change that began to chill England by the third year of that epic conflict, and they fit neatly into the annals of plays depicting the repercussions of wars as experienced away from the battleground. At the time they debuted, they were acclaimed for their sensitivity to the European upheaval. (Interestingly, the Mint mounting coincides with the return to PBS of the Foyle's War series, which looks at the ramifications of World War II in rural England.)

But Barrie's need to demonstrate the necessity for father-son, mother-son bonding transcends wartime concerns. He's dealing with larger universal issues here, and he may have been dealing with them out of deep-seated personal compulsions. He's on record as needing to express his (perhaps fatherly) concern for some of the young soldiers he knew -- one of whom, Peter Llewelyn Davies, had lent his name almost two decades earlier to Peter Pan. These psychological impulses -- if that's what they are -- probably deserve a chapter in any biographical account of Barrie, but for the time being, they bear contemplation. And Echoes of the War eminently bears hearing and seeing.

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