Any theater writer can tell you there’s a mini-festival of Tennessee Williams going on right now ("Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at Raven; "Sweet Bird of Youth" at Artistic Home), or of Chekhov (Goodman’s "The Seagull"; Piven’s "Three Sisters"). But it takes the intrepid trend-spotters of The Front Page to bring you the news that J.M. Barrie is likewise having his day on multiple stages around town:"Peter Pan"at Lookingglass, yes, but also the world premiere adaptation "Echoes of the War" by Rendition Theatre at the Lincoln Park Cultural Center.
The dark, adult "Peter Pan" now on display provides a wonderful backdrop to "Echoes of the War," a stage retelling of three Barrie short stories about families in London as they bear up during World War I. When the mother in the first piece “The New Word” (played by Deborah Ann Smith, who also adapted the work for the stage) mentions that her son who died at seven remains always a child in her mind, naturally we’re reminded of Peter Pan’s failure to grow up. The segments involving young men who die in combat (Lost Boys?) allude to the loss of Barrie’s own son in the Great War, and account for Peter Pan’s otherwise gratuitously sad announcement that one of the three Darling children reaches manhood only to die.
The stories, like "Peter Pan," are about death and loss and the way family life tries to tame–literally, to domesticate–those painful realities. “The New Word,” set in the first spring of the war, a young man leaving for the front has his first-ever solo conversation with his father, after a lifetime spent in the mother-dominated nursery. The segment explores the different roles of maternal and paternal love, unlike "Peter Pan" giving pride of place to fatherhood. “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals,” set a year later, examines the pretenses woven into all family life (a timely subject as Thanksgiving approaches!), but unlike in "Peter Pan" offers hope that pretense can turn into reality. “A Well-Remembered Voice,” which takes place in 1917–either Barrie or Smith didn’t have the heart to go forward into the war’s final, heartbreakingly bloody year–considers life after or apart from death (Neverland?), concluding that it’s not childish fantasy at all but necessary reality.
While "Peter Pan" is essentially and deliberately timeless, "Echoes of the War" is firmly anchored in this particular war and the social disruptions it creates, as the Rendition production emphasizes with its tinny period music and its lobby display of British war artifacts, from recruiting poster to poppy. Each scene has its share in demonstrating how the war shaped all conversations, even those taking place over brandy in comfortable libraries or around the table in cozy kitchens. Early in the war there’s talk of shining swords and rapid victory and measuring up to the heroic challenge–“seeking the bubble reputation in the cannon’s mouth.” By 1916 women are reduced to accepting comfort–and competing for status–based on the regiments to which their men belong and the number of letters home they receive, while by the third spring there’s nothing left but ouija boards and automatic writing and a gaping hole where the young soldier used to be. Director Tim Curtis manages these tropes judiciously, without over-stressing them, so that their very familiarity becomes a reminder that what we’re watching is the world’s first experience of total war–and not coincidentally the start of the modern world.
The physical setting in the dark-paneled library of the Lincoln Park Cultural Center (at Dickens and Lincoln Park West: aptly enough, a late-Victorian mansion) is a bit awkward–lights have to be flicked on and off by company members’ poking their heads into the room, and all furniture is moved in full view of the audience–but Rendition makes the most of that as well, posting vaudeville-style title cards for each of the three scenes. The entire evening takes fewer than 90 minutes and is presented without intermission, so it’s like having a spell cast over you and then awakening to find yourself safe in bed in the nursery.
Adapter Smith modestly says that the piece fell into her hands, that she read the stories wondering why someone had formatted plays so oddly. On realizing her mistake, she decided to write what she thought she’d been reading all along. Consciously or not, Smith too is echoing: Michelangelo claimed to merely set free the final statue embedded in the original block of marble.
"Echoes of the War" is quite a different experience from Strange Tree Group’s The War Plays, an environmental piece about London during the Baby Blitz of 1944. But it’s interesting that two Chicago theaters should choose to celebrate American Veterans’ Day with portrayals of England at war. If the focus had been the United States, these commemorations would, or at least could, have been triumphalist. But the English setting highlights how war ate away the fabric of this powerful nation until it was little more than a shadow (an echo?) of its once-dominant self. Perhaps we should pay attention to that as we watch. The more we remember, the less there is to celebrate about Armistice Day.