Peter Pan Credit: Sean Williams

PETER PAN Lookingglass Theatre Company

What is genius?” asked Scottish writer James Barrie in his autobiographical 1900 novel Tommy and Grizel. “It is the power to be a boy again at will.” And as the author of the 1904 play Peter Pan—running now in an inventive, thought-provoking, sometimes exhilarating adaptation at Lookingglass Theatre—Barrie celebrated boyhood with the whimsy and empathy of a man seemingly in close touch with his inner child.

But Barrie’s inner child was a troubled one. When James was six, his 13-year-old brother, David, died in an ice-skating accident. Their mother found a strange solace in the notion that by dying David would remain forever a child, and Barrie’s futile attempt to win his mother’s love by “becoming” David—even wearing his clothes—left him emotionally paralyzed, a case study in arrested development.

The character of Peter Pan evolved years later, after Barrie, in his 30s, became friends with the Llewelyn Davies family—Arthur, Sylvia, and their five sons. Barrie entertained the boys and indulged himself by playing games with them involving fairies, mermaids, pirates, and Indians. In 1902, he introduced Peter, in a novel called The Little White Bird, as an infant who runs away from home and lives in Kensington Gardens.

Two years later Barrie published his masterpiece, the children’s play Peter Pan, in which Peter is about ten years old—perpetually poised on the brink of puberty. It was adapted into a novel, initially called Peter and Wendy, in 1911.

Over the years, the story has undergone numerous retellings. In Chicago the 1990s saw several memorable takes on the material, at Center Theater, Shattered Globe, Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace, and the Shubert (now Bank of America Theatre). The House Theater of Chicago’s The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan (2002) underscored the dark psychosexual underpinnings of the tale.

Lookingglass Theatre’s new production takes more liberties with Barrie’s text than any of those, but it remains faithful to the spirit of the original, celebrating athleticism and joyous make-believe while exploring Barrie’s fixation on childhood and death.

Adapter-director Amanda Dehnert returns the story to its roots in game playing. The plot is enacted as a play-within-a-play by an adult ensemble portraying children armed with a copy of the Signet paperback edition of Barrie’s novel, which magically falls from the sky as if dropped by Peter himself. Clad in Melissa Torchia’s simple white costumes, the kids read aloud from the book—allowing the audience to savor the humor and melancholy of Barrie’s narration—and gradually become his characters.

As in the original, Peter lures Wendy Darling and her brothers, John and Michael, to his magical island of Neverland so Wendy can play mother to him and his band of Lost Boys. Dehnert highlights Barrie’s obsession with mother figures by beefing up the role of Wendy’s own mother, a woman with, in Barrie’s words, “a sweet mocking mouth” holding “one kiss on it that Wendy could never get.” It’s Mrs. Darling who articulates the terrible truth that the only way a child can never grow up is to die. Dehnert has also transformed the character of the lovable pirate Smee into a madwoman—a mother who came to Neverland in search of her lost children and now pushes around a baby carriage loaded with a doll and a boom box.

With Smee turned into a mother, Peter’s nemesis, Captain Hook, is all the more emphatically a terrifying father figure. As in the original, Hook fears being devoured by a crocodile that has a loudly ticking clock in its stomach. Rather than portray the croc onstage, Dehnert announces its presence with echoing pulses while spotlighting Hook—driving home the fact that the ticktock of the croc clock is a metaphor for time. Hook is revealed as Barrie himself, envious of Peter’s eternal youth. Barrie’s Peter Pan climaxes with Peter kicking Hook into the croc’s jaws during a swordfight; here Hook willingly submits to his fate in a final acceptance of mortality.

Yet Peter Pan is first and foremost about the joy of youthful adventure. Performing on a set that looks like an industrial loft, the athletic actors clamber up and down scaffolds and ladders, pass over the audience’s heads on catwalks, and pop from underneath seats. The flying scenes are wonderful. Rather than try to disguise the mechanics by which Peter and the Darling children take to the air, Dehnert and movement director Matt Hawkins keep the rigging completely visible. The audience is invited to identify with the exhilaration the actors must be feeling.

As Peter, Ryan Nunn conveys the moodiness of a boy who can fly but fails to connect with other people. Kay Kron is an appropriately perplexed Wendy, forced into the role of surrogate mother by a boy she would rather kiss. Molly Brennan is sad and weirdly funny as the delusional Smee, Jamie Abelson and Alex Weisman have some hilarious byplay as John and Michael, and Amy Carle’s Mrs. Darling captures Barrie’s vision of the charming, elusive, distracted mother. Wearing a brutal looking three-pronged grappling hook as a prosthesis, Thomas Cox’s Hook is a snarling man-monster with the heart of a boy.