Playwright James M. Barrie is most famous for his familiar and much-loved fantasy “Peter Pan.” However, he also produced a large body of other literary works that include two quaintly delicate playlets: “Rosalind” and “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals.”
These two are currently being staged in a delightful twosome titled Barrie: Back to Back at the always-excellent Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice.
The first play, “Rosalind,” features Lesley Fera as a softly aging actress, Beatrice, renowned for her portrayal of Rosalind in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Calling herself “Mrs. Page,” she has come to a vacation cottage by the sea, far from London, to relax and revel, secretly, in her middle-agedness. To her landlady, Dame Quickly (Sarah Zinsser, who, unfortunately, speaks so quietly that she cannot be understood), Mrs. Page claims to be the mother of the famous Beatrice, rather than the actress herself.
By improbable coincidence, a young man, Charles, (Kevin Railsback) who is in love with Beatrice, stops by this out-of-the-way cottage seeking shelter from the rain. Introduced by Dame Quickly to “Mrs. Page,” he soon discerns that she is the mother of his lady love and begins to question her about her “daughter.” Whereupon Mrs. Page reveals her true identity and explains why she has retained the identity of the young Beatrice well into middle-age.
"There is nothing for them (actresses) between the ages of 29 and 60,” she tells him. “Occasionally one of the less experienced dramatists may write such a part, but with a little coaxing we can always make him say, ‘She needn’t be more than 29.’ And so, dear Charles, we have succeeded in keeping middle-age for women off the stage.”
Chagrined by this confession, Charles nevertheless succumbs to the lady’s charms and the short play continues to a charming conclusion. The moral being, it is supposed, that “you’re only as old as you choose to be.”
As an aside, it’s interesting to note that this conceit mirrors Barrie’s own life experience. His wife, actress Mary Anstell, consistently subtracted six to 10 years from her age and, after he had divorced her for infidelity, she married a man who was half her age. (Her second husband was 25 to her 49.)
The second play in this back-to-back performance is a sweet, wistful little drama set during the first World War. Titled “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals,” it concerns four charwomen gathered for tea in the grungy basement apartment of Mrs. Dowey (a spectacularly wonderful Penny Safranek). The chief topic of conversation among the ladies (Roses Prichard, Sara Zinsser, and Jennifer Lonsway, in addition to Ms. Safranek) is their sons, all off fighting in the war. Mrs. Dowey makes a point of showing off the letters her son has written to her and boasts that he addresses her as “Dear BEST Mother.”
In the next scene, five days later, the four women, gathered again for tea, are interrupted by the local minister, Mr. Willings (William Lithgow), who announces that he has stumbled upon Mrs. Dowey’s son Kenneth and has brought him home to his mother. Mrs. Dowey, absurdly flustered, manages to shoo everyone out, mops and buckets and all, before her son Kenneth (a marvelously macho Joe McGovern) enters.
As we have guessed by this time, the young man is not her son. The old spinster, who admits “I never had any man at all in my life,” had picked his name from a newspaper article and invented him as her son because she felt “left out” of all the talk and activities of the war. Kenneth, who had come along to chastise her for her deception, winds up staying for tea. And a hot bath. And a comfortable bed.
And, eventually, he agrees to let her be his counterfeit mum, “but only on probation.”
She, in turn, flutters and flirts, and delights in pampering him, and it is here that actress Safranek is at her best — coy and shy and utterly delicious.
At one point she asks about his war experiences. He admits that he has killed two Germans, but is more proud of the fact that he had captured six prisoners.
“How could one man take six prisoners?” she asks in amazement.
“In the usual way,” he responds. “I surrounded them.”
After spending his entire furlough with her, Kenneth, who is an orphan, admits to “havng son-ish feelings” for her and proposes, down on one knee, that she become his mother. “And if you reject me, I swear I’ll never ask another,” he declares vehemently.
And then he returns to the war.
Barrie: Back to Back is a delightful snippet from Edwardian times that exudes a sweet innocence and a nostalgia for a way of life that will never be again.
Nick Santiago and Audrey Eisner have beautifully captured the ambience and costumes of those times and Marilyn Fox and Dana Dewes have directed their winning casts with great wit and appeal.
This double bill can be seen Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Aug. 7. The Pacific Resident Theatre is located at 703 Venice Blvd., four blocks west of Lincoln, in Venice. To purchase tickets, call (310) 822-8392 or visit www.PacificResident Theatre.com.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.