Well, Peter Pan, I -- speaking as a mother -- never liked you much either. So I retorted, inwardly, upon hearing the title of Michael Lluberes' new play, "Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers," which is having its West Coast premiere at the Blank Theatre.
Serial abductor. Braggart. Monochromatic dresser. Megaprofit generator. And now unabashed mother hater. Who needs Peter Pan? At least, having seen the 1953 Disney movie more times than I want to admit, having cheered countless petite women swinging above my head in green tights, who needs him again?
The promotional materials, perhaps foreseeing this response, promised that Lluberes' retelling, based on J.M. Barrie's 1911 novel "Peter and Wendy," would be dark. I hoped Peter would get impaled on a star.
In fact, in this charming production directed by the deft Michael Matthews, Lluberes has stripped off the well-intentioned Disney and Broadway varnishes to restore Barrie's unique voice and his great subject, the horror of growing up, which is a version of the horror of death.
Focusing on the characters rather than on the theatrical illusions that have beguiled audiences in the past (there's no flying apparatus -- characters lift each other up to "fly"), the show captures the intertwined magic and terror of childhood, the crushing loss to those obliged to outgrow it, and the irony that refusing to outgrow it means refusing to live.
We leave the theater pretty well versed in all the ironies. But getting there does require us to let go of some preconceptions.
Peter, as played by Daniel Shawn Miller, is a man. As in, not a woman. Not a preteen cartoon. Large. Hairy. Unmistakably post-pubescent. When he leaps around the Darling children's bedroom he makes a racket. Whether he admits it or not, he's grown up, much too big to be sneaking into children's bedrooms. This unprecedented manliness makes him both a lot creepier and a lot sadder than preceding Peters and gives his relationship with Wendy (the fresh and utterly persuasive Liza Burns) a disconcerting heat.
Mrs. Darling, played by Trisha LaFache, is no longer the soigné angel of the nursery but a grief-crazed mother with smudged mascara and dilapidated goth dress (Kellsy MacKilligan's costumes are great). Suddenly the children's eagerness to fly off to Neverland makes sense.
But she's there too -- transformed into Lady Macbeth-esque Captain Hook. I thought this gender switch worked better conceptually than in practice, but then again the entire Captain Hook plot felt extraneous. Captain Hook is a buffoonish villain on his best day, put in to distract children from the real problem. And since there won't (or shouldn't) be children in the audience of this reinterpretation, why bother with him (her)?
No, the heart of the story lies with, of all people, the Lost Boys -- whom I previously snubbed as inept comic relief. In delicate, deeply human portrayals, Amy Lawhorn (Nibs), David Hemphill (Slightly) and Jackson Evans (Tootles) bring these brave, puzzled little boys to full and touching life.
Because all three are wonderful, I feel bad for admitting that I had a favorite, so I'll rewrite a line from the play: "Some like Nibs best, and some like Slightly best, but I like Tootles best." The cast's British accents are all over the place and almost seem indulgent, except that Barrie's melancholy, playful prose wouldn't sound quite right in American.
"Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers," the Blank's 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 2. $30. www.TheBlank.com or (323) 661-9827. Running time: 2 hours.