The theater is the natural habitat of ghosts, and one of the most enchanting spirits in the theatrical archives is the title character of “Mary Rose,” J.M. Barrie’s 1920 melodrama about a young woman who cannot grow up. Unlike Barrie’s forever-young Peter Pan, Mary Rose’s immortality is a curse as well as a blessing, which gives the play a heart-wrenching poignancy only fitfully realized in Tina Landau’s production for the Vineyard. But the haunting drama is so rarely revived that even this imperfect showcase should inspire other creatives to have a whack at this theatrical treasure.
Landau’s most successful directorial contribution is the introduction of a choric narrator not unlike the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” Unseen by the other characters, this sepulchral figure recites Barrie’s stage directions and comments on events in a manner that both heightens the eerie atmosphere and adds cosmic dimension to its themes of loss and longing.
The device couldn’t be more appropriate for a play written in the aftermath of WWI and addressing itself to a mournful generation still burying its dead but unable to bear giving them up.
Keir Dullea, whose solid stage creds will probably always be eclipsed by his characterization of the haunted young astronaut in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” presents a gaunt and brooding presence as the narrator. Thesp’s otherworldly demeanor is especially effective in scenes with the excellent Susan Blommaert, herself a wraith-like presence as Mrs. Otery, the housekeeper whose nerves have been worn thin by living in a haunted house.
But while Dullea’s narrator hovers gracefully in corners of the room and on the lip of the stage, his sadness palpable even in the shadows of Kevin Adams’ moody lighting, Landau seems to lose interest in the character she has created. After a while, he tends to disappear.
Not that the play proper isn’t spooky enough.
Presented through prisms of time covering more than three decades, the story begins just after the war, when a stalwart seaman named Harry (played, stalwartly, by Richard Short) returns to the empty house that was once his childhood home. The rooms are stripped bare, the wallpaper is peeling, and the place couldn’t look more forlorn in James Schuette’s sad setting.
The narrative then jumps back three decades to observe the house’s former inhabitants, Mr. and Mrs. Morland (Michael Countryman, Betsy Aidem), in a happier time, on that golden day when their beloved daughter Mary Rose (Paige Howard) becomes engaged to a nice young man named Simon (Darren Goldstein).
The only shadow on this domestic landscape is the family secret about the preternaturally girlish Mary Rose, who some years back inexplicably disappeared when she and her father were fishing on a small island in the Scottish Hebrides — only to return a month later with no memory of her extraordinary experience.
Deciding to do the decent thing, the Morlands confide Mary Rose’s secret to Simon, who is ninny enough to take his wife back to the island that mysteriously beckons to her. Thanks largely to an eccentric, almost shamelessly charming performance by Ian Brennan as the Scottish lad who ferries them over the water, the scene on the island is played with a lovely mixture of joy and foreboding that perfectly captures Barrie’s conflicted feelings about the eternal youth of lost children — and no doubt appealed to postwar audiences grieving for their own lost sons and daughters.
As for Mary Rose, she comes, she goes, and while nobody knows exactly what happens to her when she walks through the invisible barriers of space and time, one thing is certain — she never ages. Oddly enough, Howard (daughter of director Ron Howard and still a student) is more convincing as the ageless ghost than as the vibrant girl in the flush of youth.
Both Howard and Goldstein, in fact, seem to have fallen victim to the tries-too-hard school of direction of which Landau is a charter member. Intent on “playing” youth, both thesps exhaust themselves in its mannerisms. Or maybe they have simply taken Mary Rose’s fate too much to heart and decided eternal youth is not all it is cracked up to be.