Earlier this week, you may have read on this site about Animal Engine Theatre Company, an ensemble recently relocated to Minneapolis that specializes in devised physical theater. Their production of Darlings is currently at the Southern Theater for a one-weekend run, and last night I had the opportunity to witness what other critics have raved about.
There have been countless versions of J. M Barrie’s classic Peter Pan, but Darlings stands apart. Rather than being a straight retelling, it looks at the story from the perspective of the parents after Wendy, John, and Michael disappear—we know they’ve gone to Neverland, but a year after their departure, their parents are still trying to cope with the loss. Whether you have lost someone close to you or not, Darlings will pull on your heartstrings. I do recommend some prior familiarity with the original story, as it makes the play easier to follow.
Walking into the theater, guests are greeted by Karim Muasher as Mr. Darling, holding an umbrella in one hand and a missing-children flier in the other. The sound of rain and thunder fills the old brick-walled theater. As you take your seat, you notice a woman sitting with her back to the audience, and it’s apparent that this is Mrs. Darling, played by Carrie Brown. This remains the scene for approximately 15 minutes while the showgoers take their seats. Mr. Darling’s expression is of sorrow and concern and is unchanged during the seating process. This caught my attention right away—it was pretty impressive for him to hold that stance and emotion for so long while audience members walked up close to read his flyer.
The audience is soon more formally introduced to George and Margaret Darling, whose three children disappeared the year prior. Margaret is unable to accept the apparent reality that the children will not be returning, and the parents begin to act out the fantasy stories of Neverland and Peter Pan told to them by Wendy, John, and Michael. The Darlings retreat into these stories as a coping mechanism, punctuated by brief moments in which it is obvious, by facial expressions and body language, that something has triggered them to snap back to reality.
As a parent, sitting between my own children in the theater, I was drawn into George’s and Margaret’s grief and desperation to make sense of the tragedy. I found myself wanting desperately to console them. (I may have cried—twice.) Muasher and Brown, a real-life husband-and-wife team who are the joint artistic directors of Animal Engine, have astounding interaction on the stage. They are able to tap into their own personal chemistry to portray feelings between a couple that share mutual loss. The production isn’t all sadness, however—there is occasional well-placed comic relief that provides a chance to breathe.
Darlings has just three more shows this weekend, and I highly recommend catching one: 7:30 p.m. on March 31 and at 2:00 and 7:30 p.m. on April 1. For tickets and details, see Animal Engine’s website or Facebook page or the Southern Theater website.