It’s an early evening in April and I’m back at the family farm for The Event of the Year, a production of Peter Pan that Becky’s 11-year-old daughters and their friends are putting on in the ancient red barn. It’s the first in a series of plays by the newly formed Red Barn Theatre group, and they’ve been working on it for months.
I’m very much looking forward to the show, but walking down the gravel driveway, I can’t help but look back to the past. The wooden gate Becky and I once swung on is held open by tangles of vines, and the towering alder tree we climbed is missing from the skyline. Rusted farm equipment stands axle-deep in sourgrass. Most of the little green shed is prettily lost under a frothy explosion of pale pink Cecil Brunner roses – the birthday rose, we call it, as it blooms in April, when three of our family were born. Yesterday, in fact, would have been Dad’s 91st, and this gathering today on the farm he so loved betokens a rebirth of sorts.
The voices and laughter of children waft through the gnarled, century-old apple trees in the hillside orchards, and bursts of color dart over the bright green grass. I can hear the kids’ pre-show excitement, but also their sheer joy to be in this special place. Around the bend in the drive looms the old barn, the early evening light illuminating its rusty, corrugated roof and renewing its myriad shades of faded red. It’s such a vivid reminder of childhood that I can almost hear the chickens clucking, and Tillie, our 1940s John Deere tractor, chugging in the distance. I can almost see, out of the corner of my eye, the puff of beige dust that would be Dad, waving his hat at me, calling out “Ho there!” over the engine’s growl.
But as I move through the happy crowd and step into the barn, there’s a sense that the past isn’t gone; it’s just been transformed — reborn, in this play and this place. This barn is where I once curled up in alfalfa-bale forts to read books, to hear the snuffling and breathing of my horse, and to hide from reminders of pre-dinner chores. Tonight, streaks of gold seep through the wall boards, and a string of fairy lights brings early stars inside. The barn has never been this clean, not in my lifetime; it has been swept and dusted to its rafters, but the gray wood is still raw, and antique plow gear still hangs from the walls. Twenty-plus chairs are set up just inside the doors. I take a seat and take it in. The stables on the left are hidden by drapes, as is the door on the right. That’s backstage for the show tonight, as crescendos of giggles make clear.
The play is wonderful. My niece, Claire, has written the script and is playing Captain Hook – the makeup and costume are so convincing, I don’t even recognize her — and her twin sister Katie is playing the extraordinarily diverse roles of Mrs. Darling, the crocodile, and one Lost Boy. The entire cast consists of our LitWits kids and their siblings, and the feeling I get, sitting there among their parents in this dusky, streaked light, is of kindness and warmth. There are no “stage parents” here, just moms and dads grinning from ear to ear, delighted to see their kids do whatever they’ll do.
And our own mom is here too, of course, no doubt remembering sitting here four decades ago with Dad, watching the five of us do this very same thing. Does she remember our production of John the Baptist? It’s the play that stands out most vividly in my mind: I played Herod, I think, and our brothers were St. John and guards. Five-year-old Becky was Salome, wiggling her hips in a 1950s blue prom gown and then, at Herod’s demand, presenting him with a ketchup-smeared rock on a platter.
Tonight’s performance is far less macabre, with just enough dastardly snarls from Claire the captain, just enough of a threatening swim-by from Katie the crocodile, just enough fear and trembling from the Lost Boys and Darlings, and just enough mayhem from the pirates and Tinkerbell to enthrall the audience. The faces of the children, aglow with excitement, add seventeen soft oval lights to the darkening barn. Everyone, including the stage hands, performs their roles flawlessly, and the costumes are worthy of Broadway.
When the play is over, and the cookies and tea have been gleefully consumed by the happy actors and their proud parents, I step outside. The night air is both sweet and salty, a blend of the nearby ocean and the Belle of Portugal climbing rose that clambers over the barn. Kids clatter and dash down the step to run loose in the twilight, shrieking and calling to each other, joyful in the pleasure of their performance and the relief of its conclusion. The sky is a warm Prussian green that reminds me of a Maxfield Parrish painting, and Orion stalks low in the sky on the tips of the pines.
I’m happy for the people who pulled this off, and thrilled for the parents who get to watch their kids be so creative, to experience a great book by living it out with their voices and bodies, and to have so much fun without batteries, joysticks, or screens. It’s clear that both the story and this performance of Peter Pan are all about finding one’s self and discovering what’s truly important: family, love, friends, unselfishness, trust. Bravo, Red Barn Theatre – you flew tonight.