The world-premiere play "The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll," at Boston Court Performing Arts Center in Pasadena, was inspired by a historical mystery: Three entries from June 1863 were cut out of the diaries of Charles Dodgson, the Oxford math professor who wrote "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" under his pen name, Lewis Carroll.
Before the missing pages, Dodgson's diary records an active social life with his neighbors, the Liddells, and a close bond with their three young daughters, especially Alice, the presumed (but never confirmed) model for his famous adventurer. After the missing pages, he doesn't socialize with the Liddells anymore.
Like many before her, playwright Lily Blau, who developed this play with Sydney Gallas, speculates that the 30-ish Dodgson's interest in Alice, 11 years old at the time of the rift, was sexual. But unlike most theorists in this vein, Blau strongly hints that he acted on his desires.
Leo Marks plays Dodgson as a courteous, charmingly stammering professor with a gift for amusing little girls and an interest (that would certainly set off alarms today) in photographing them. Years after the summer in question, he is haunted by his own creation, the White Rabbit (Jeff Marlow), who takes him on a memory tour of his time with Alice, implying sordid motives that make Dodgson, through his denials, twitch and mop his brow.
The remembered Alice (fetchingly played by an adult, Corryn Cummins) is a Victorian Lolita, who has a crush on Dodgson and coyly sets out to seduce him. Her mother (the imposing Erica Hanrahan-Ball) keeps stumbling in at inopportune moments and morphing into the shrill Red Queen.
This matter-of-fact mingling of fantasy and reality is a clear tribute to one of Carroll's most endearing literary strategies, and the production, under the assured direction of Abigail Deser, uses it at times magically.
Stephen Gifford's faded, stuffy Victorian parlor later opens out into a green garden where Alice and her sisters (Erin Barnes and Ashley Ruth Jones) play in costumer Garry Lennon's flouncy white dresses, bathed in a golden glow by lighting designer Jaymi Lee Smith.
But the bold stagecraft can also get a little heavy-handed, even hysterical: As Dodgson falls metaphorically down the rabbit hole of his fantasies, he spins in circles onstage, laughing maniacally, while Keith Skretch's jittery screen projections trace his descent.
The play dances away from its hints that something untoward ever happened, concluding with a wan scene in which the adult Alice confronts Dodgson with arch but vague remarks such as "I remember a great many things."
The mystery of those missing pages remains unsolved, so depicting Wonderland as a pedophile's trap ultimately feels a bit sensationalistic and reductive.