In January of 2020, Black Button Eyes Productions presented the Chicago premiere of Duncan Sheik and Kyle Jarrow’s quirky musical ghost story Whisper House, about an 11-year-old boy living in a haunted lighthouse. Now the company—whose motto is “We help magic invade reality”—has returned to song-driven supernatural storytelling with Mary Rose, an original musical based on a century-old drama by the Scottish writer James M. Barrie. With a script by Black Button artistic director Ed Rutherford and songs by Rutherford and composer-lyricist Jeff Bouthiette, this is a curious and engaging fantasy, by turns whimsical, melancholy, and macabre.
Barrie’s play Mary Rose was first produced in London’s West End in 1920 and opened on Broadway later the same year. Both productions were hits, but thereafter the play fell into obscurity. Alfred Hitchcock, who saw the original London production when he was 20, nurtured a career-long dream of bringing the story to the screen; he attempted to film it as a vehicle for Tippi Hedren in the 1960s, but the project collapsed following the box-office failure of his 1964 Marnie, in which Hedren starred. In 2007, Steppenwolf ensemble member Tina Landau staged the Barrie play for a short off-Broadway run, but by and large Mary Rose is a forgotten work—though perhaps Rutherford and Bouthiette’s adaptation will change that.
Through 2/12: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, the Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway, blackbuttoneyes.com, $30.
Set in the years immediately after World War I, Mary Rose begins like many haunted-house stories do—with a curious visitor roaming the run-down confines of an old English estate. The visitor, Harry, is a retired British army chaplain who walks with a limp due to wounds sustained in the Great War. The house, long uninhabited—or so ‘tis thought—is up for sale, and Harry is being given a tour of the property by a curmudgeonly housekeeper, Mrs. Otery, who would rather be somewhere, anywhere, else. As the audience gets to know Harry, we see that his wounds are not merely physical; his idealism and religious faith have been shattered by the carnage of the recent conflict. Haunted by the past, he is ripe for more haunting.
As in so many tales of this type, the house contains a mysterious door which Harry is forbidden by Mrs. Otery to open—and so, of course, he opens it. What follows is a story about—and sometimes told in flashback by—one Mary Rose, a sweet but strange young recluse who resides in what was thought to be an uninhabited home.
As a child, we learn, Mary Rose once went missing for almost a month while she and her father were vacationing on a remote island in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, known by the suspicious locals as “The Island That Likes to Be Visited.” When she reappeared almost a month later, the little girl had no memory of where she’d been, or even that she’d gone missing. After several years, during which she’d grown to womanhood, gotten married, and had a child of her own, Mary and her husband returned to the same island on a belated honeymoon, and once again she went missing—this time for more than 20 years.
Mary’s spooky story spans almost half a century. Yet the Mary that Harry meets appears not to have aged since she was a lovely 18-year-old bride. It is, as Mary’s mother says in Barrie’s play—in a line of dialogue that is nicely shaped into a lyric by Rutherford and Bouthiette—like the way “a touch of frost may stop the growth of a plant and yet leave it blooming.”
How the mystery of Mary envelops Harry is the focus of the musical’s climax. Rutherford and Bouthiette have trimmed Barrie’s three-act drama into an economical 90-minute one-act, and in doing so they have intensified the relationship between the ghostly woman and the grieving man. The sentimentally spiritual resolution of Barrie’s original is replaced by a darker denouement that more truthfully mirrors the narrative’s emotional subtext.
James Barrie is, of course, best known as the author of the children’s classic Peter Pan. Interestingly, both Peter Pan and Mary Rose emerged from tragic events in their author’s life. When James was six years old, his older brother David was killed in an ice-skating accident the day before his 14th birthday. The child’s death devastated Barrie’s mother Margaret, and in a sense the loss froze both Margaret and James in a state of emotional suspended animation. David—untimely dead but forever young—became the inspiration for Peter Pan, the magical boy who will never grow up.
Though best known as the hero of the 1904 play that bears his name (as well as innumerable stage, screen, and video-game adaptations), Peter first appeared in Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird, in which he is described as a week-old infant who, being part bird, flew away to Kensington Gardens, a London park popular with families, in order to escape the inevitability of growing up. At night, according to Barrie’s narrative, fairies roamed freely in the gated gardens after “Lock-out Time.” But when Peter tried to return home, he discovered that his mother had forgotten about him and had another child whom she could love; thus Peter’s refuge from adulthood became a place of eternal exile.
Barrie’s make-believe Kensington Gardens is, of course, Heaven—the otherworld where James’s brother David would live forever a child. In the Celtic mythology of Barrie’s ancestors, it was called Tír na nÓg—Land of the Young. In the play Peter Pan the place became the dreamworld Neverland—second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning. In Mary Rose, it is The Island That Likes to Be Visited—but one visits it at the risk of never fully returning. If Peter Pan is a fantasy incarnation of James Barrie’s brother David, perhaps Mary Rose is a ghostly version of his mother Margaret, who, as Peter Hollindale writes in his introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, “remained in many ways continuingly young, and yet in one part dead . . . because of David’s death.”
In its world premiere at the intimate Edge Theater in Edgewater, Mary Rose is directed by coauthor Rutherford. He has assembled an able cast, with two excellent singing actors, Stephanie Stockstill and Kevin Webb, as Mary and Harry. Besides their fine voices, their emotional authenticity brings gravity to what could have been unbearably twee material. The songs themselves—accompanied by an offstage quartet led by keyboardist Nick Sula—are efficient, at their best recalling something Danny Elfman might write for a scary-funny Tim Burton film. This includes a choral number called “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” in which Rutherford uses ideas from another famous writer of supernatural stories, Denmark’s Hans Christian Andersen. My only complaint about the show is the sound amplification, which makes the vocals sound like they are coming from a source other than the onstage singers. It’s a rather spooky effect—and not in a good way.