Seeing childhood fantasy and its flights of imagination as a refuge from the real-world horrors of the adult world is a trope as old as children’s literature. But can it also be a fatal trap? That’s the question posed by Now or Neverland, playwright April Morrow’s harrowing and somewhat perplexing blend of Peter Pan and abject familial violence, now having its world premiere at Loft Ensemble.
Madylin Sweeten is 17-year-old Nora, a high school outcast and loner, whose odd manner has made her the target of a sadistic clique of bullying students who go by names like Curly (Dantz Debusk), Nibs (Sarah Nilsen) and Tootles (Joe Bills). Plagued by their merciless hazing, Nora’s only safe haven is the school library and the protection of its nurturing librarian, Mrs. Darling (Jennifer DeRosa).
But the librarian can do little to help the girl with an even more alarming predicament: Nora is also under assault by the inopportune appearances of Peter (Marc Leclerc), an impishly bedeviling figment of her imagination. In the midst of her studies — and increasingly in full view of fellow students and teachers — Peter’s disruptive manifestations are aimed at persuading Nora to return with him to Neverland, the fantasy world that Nora constructed as a child, using J.M. Barrie’s characters and adventures as a retreat from the unimaginably shocking traumas of what is revealed as a violently abusive home life. Now, ironically on the cusp of adulthood, her fantasies return like so many bad acid flashbacks to threaten her very grip on reality.
Morrow is not the first to have seen darker and more ominous gleanings in Barrie’s beloved allegory about the loss of childhood and the horror of growing up. Michael Lluberes' Gothic-tinged Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers, which played at the Blank Theatre in 2013, incorporated the tragic death of a child from the real-life family that served as the wellspring for Barrie’s gloomier, not-yet-Disneyfied 1904 play. Now or Neverland takes the tale into even more sordid terrain by seizing on the existential plight of Peter himself — a boy who not only wouldn’t grow up but who was effectively stranded in perennial pre-adolescence by a mother who literally barred the window against his return from his magical flights of fantasy — as the frame for its exploration of the confusion and psychological contradictions faced by victims of child abuse.
Morrow is most convincing when it comes to schematizing the parallels between Peter Pan and the emotional straits of a child caught between her loyalty to an abusing family member and her own mental and physical survival. The play is less plausible when it comes to the narrative’s understanding of how public officials monitor and respond to students who exhibit potential signs of battering. Rather than picking up the phone and calling children’s services, for example, the teachers in Now or Neverland’s public school system risibly take Nora at her word that a decade of broken bones and gruesome bruises on her contused face are the result of “softball practice.” The town’s juvenile cops prove just as unresponsive and gullible.
More unwieldy, however, is the poetic short circuit between the sobering clinical and forensic realities of child abuse and the whimsicality of director Bree Pavey’s colorfully antic, if sometimes shrill staging (anchored by Sweeten and Joe Bills’ emblematic scenic paintings). Given the extremity of Nora’s emotional turmoil — a psychosis that includes schizophrenic-like arguments with unseen voices — and the girl’s exasperating refusal to accept help when it is finally offered, the choice to project her Neverland fantasies in more or less conventional children’s theater terms rather than as something more grotesquely distorted and psychosexually foreboding might be Now or Neverland’s most egregious theatrical missed opportunity.
Nevertheless, Sweeten manages to hold her own in a persuasive portrayal of what it means for a young girl to be hopelessly trapped in the most severe state of traumatic extremis. Leclerc likewise stands out, both for his athletic prowess as Peter Pan and as Nora’s protective but fatalistic older brother. (Leclerc also is credited for the production’s imaginatively choreographed and rhythmic, dancelike fight sequences, which emerge as a highpoint of the evening.) Jared Wilson, who is also fine doubling as the play’s Captain Hook, provides riveting support as Nora’s alcoholic and deeply conflicted abuser-dad.
Loft Ensemble Theater, 13442 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; through Jan. 28. (818) 616-3150, loftensemble.org.
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