Mary Rose by Black Button Eyes Productions Credit: Illustration/design by Walter Bezt and Jeff Meyer

J.M. Barrie’s most famous creation has become shorthand for all puckish men-children who refuse to grow up, entranced by a world of adventure and derring-do, where good and evil exist on an uncomplicated binary. But while Peter Pan and his fellow Lost Boys have found life in numerous adaptations since Barrie first introduced the character 120 years ago, another Barrie creation with a penchant for getting lost in time has been generally ignored.

In 1920, Barrie’s play Mary Rose made its debut at London’s Haymarket Theatre, with a New York production following the same year. Then it mostly went away, except for a New York revival in 2007 and one in London in 2012.

But Ed Rutherford, producing artistic director of Chicago’s Black Button Eyes Productions, felt Barrie’s play would be a great fit for his company, whose tagline is “We help magic invade reality.” In Barrie’s story, the title character vanishes twice from the same Scottish island (shades of Brigadoon)—once as a small child for 21 days, and then again as a young wife and mother for decades. Each time she reappears with no memory of the lost time, and not looking a day older than when she disappeared.

Rutherford first became aware of Barrie’s play when it was under consideration for production with Promethean Theatre Ensemble, where he’s an artistic associate. Promethean passed on it, but Rutherford says, “It did kind of stick with me as an interesting story. It had a lot of potential, but it’s very much a piece of its time. It’s got a three-act structure and other issues with it that I think make it unsuitable a little bit for contemporary audiences. But I just thought there was something there that kind of got under my skin and stayed with me.”

Mary Rose
1/7-2/12: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, the Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway, blackbuttoneyes.com, $30.

With Barrie’s play entering the public domain a few years ago, Rutherford realized that he and his collaborators could take the original and reimagine it as a shorter musical project. He reached out in early 2020 to composer and lyricist Jeff Bouthiette, who had previously worked as musical director with Black Button Eyes on their 2016 production of the Polly Pen/Peggy Harmon musical version of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. The enforced pandemic shutdown gave the two plenty of time to focus on the project, which opens in a world premiere at Edge Theater this weekend.

In addition to trimming the length, Rutherford (who wrote the book and cowrote the lyrics with Bouthiette) says, “It was important to me—and this is maybe partly what I’m talking about when when we discuss how it’s very much of its period—that I find opportunities to give the title character more agency and emotional complexity than maybe made up the original text.” He adds, “It also has to do with some of the other themes I want to explore as far as how you deal with loss and grief, especially the sudden loss of somebody that you care about very much.”

The score itself, though, has what Rutherford describes as “a very classical feel to it with obviously some contemporary influences and more modern sounds. I would say that we do have one number that explicitly is referencing British music hall a little bit from that period.”

Bouthiette says, “The thing that was exciting is that I could immediately hear what this might sound like. It has, to me, a very specific tone. I like to describe it as The Secret Garden‘s creepier or older sibling that’s into Ouija board.” They’ve orchestrated the score for a four-piece band: piano and keyboards, violin, cello, and percussion.

Stephanie Stockstill, who performed in Black Button Eyes’s Goblin Market, plays the title role, and notes that Mary Rose “is a Victorian woman, but she’s a little bit more of a free spirit. Even as a child it’s mentioned she was always running wild. Sometimes she was kind of devilish. She had that streak to her and she does make some unconventional kinds of choices. Even if they’re not conscious choices, her subconscious is sort of asking to be taken away from the life that she has.”

Even without an explicitly feminist adaptation, one could argue that there is something implicitly feminist in imagining a woman who essentially rejects being Wendy, the responsible conscientious girl and maternal figure in a world full of male ids. 

Rutherford says, “There are definitely themes that Barrie explores in Peter Pan that I think also find echoes in Mary Rose, just as far as specific plot points. An island that is mysterious and magical figures, importantly, kind of like Neverland. The character of Mary Rose, it’s clear in the original text—and we do explore that a little bit more in this version—that kind of like Peter Pan, she’s preoccupied with and concerned about growing up and passing the milestones of age. Whether it’s starting a family or becoming more distant from her parents, that sort of change as we get older and mature is something that she’s not sure she wants to buy into.” Bouthiette notes, “Her personality, her desires, and how that intersects with the supernatural world really are the center of the piece.”

For Stockstill, the story also has resonance with our own sense of “lost time” during the pandemic. 

“This was a really weird, lonely time,” she says. “At least for me during COVID, it felt like the world was taken away from me, not the other way around. Not only theater, but I sing for people who live in assisted living facilities and I work in a bar, so everything was gone for a year. She goes through being out of the world, out of time, and then she does come back. And she goes back and forth [in time] a bit and we’re experiencing that now. So it’s just strangely parallel.”