In The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll, playwright Lily Blau draws — and actor Leo Marks delivers — a sensitive, revealing portrait of the complex soul who gave us Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately, the world around him is muddied by a few unwise choices which leave the story’s other main character, Alice, almost invisible.
Hiding behind “Lewis Carroll” is Oxford math prof Charles Dodgson, a gentle bachelor who flees publicity. An Anglican deacon and firm believer in Victorian morality, Dodgson privately explores imaginary worlds — keeping toys and puppets in his rooms, mastering the new art of photography. (He also befriends the radical pre-Raphaelite poets and painters, a colorful world Blau wisely omits.)
In 1856, a new dean arrives; Dodgson’s quiet, all-male college life turns topsy-turvy. Dean Liddell’s three lively daughters, Alice among them, burst onto the quad and into Dodgson’s quarters, where they become welcome regulars. Designers Stephen Gifford (set) and Jaymi Lee Smith (lighting) render this exquisitely, as a glowing outdoor world flows into the dark, primly furnished rooms.
In 1862, the playful fellowship flowers into immortality — one summer afternoon, Dodgson improvises a tale about Alice seeing a white rabbit. (Again, playwright Blau edits wisely, omitting the fourth sibling, Harry, and compressing six years into a couple of scenes.)
The next summer, in 1863 … we don’t know what happens. Nobody does, because the relevant pages from Dodgson’s meticulously kept journals have been razored out. Hence the play’s title.
Into this void — where lurid fantasies and undocumented theories have rushed — Blau lets something simpler and truer emerge. A young girl finds she can be loveable to someone outside her family, and takes a shy practice step toward the terra incognita of romance. A young man finds, to his consternation, that a young girl can be both innocent and desirable. Perhaps, a kiss. Perhaps.
To the credit of everyone involved, this moment arrives onstage as inevitable yet surprising, and afterward remains of uncertain reality. It could have … it must have … we saw it … yet did it really happen?
Dodgson is terrified even to imagine desire. Alice’s parents are horrified even to think of a match so unequal in age (still done, but rarely, in Victoria’s day) and in social rank (they “properly” wish their girls to “marry up”). The playful fellowship abruptly ends.
A year and a half later, Dodgson presents Alice with an illustrated manuscript. A year after that, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is published, with John Tenniel’s drawings. As more years pass, Dodgson grows wealthy, saved from fame by the “Lewis Carroll” mask, and evermore lonely. Alice marries a titled cricketer.
Blau, and the artists who have collaborated with her in developing and workshopping the play, deserve immense credit. First (as I’ve tried to suggest) for smartly editing and focusing a story that has so many rabbit holes to fall down. Second, for creating a world — and a climactic moment — of delicacy and suggestion, despite the “hard” reality of a Victorian parlor at its center.
I’ve only two complaints. The first is fairly minor, but important.
Early on, as the children are exploding into Dodgson’s cell, someone has chosen not only to interleave Dean Liddell addressing his new faculty, but also to have characters speak simultaneously. This early, as we’re meeting the characters and trying to get oriented, that’s too much chaos — the scene must seem confusing, not be confusing.
My second concern is, alas, far greater. It’s always a tough call, in a play with children (especially precocious ones like Alice), whether to cast child or adult actors. There are compelling arguments, practical and artistic, on both sides.
Director Abigail Deser chooses adults. I hope no one else ever does. Coryn Cummins acts well, but she’s a woman, not an 11-year-old girl about to enter puberty. She’s as tall as Dodgson, and no pinafore can hide her maturity. At the key moment, this strips Alice’s first crush of its innocence, turning her timid bid for love into sexual seduction — and putting us right where the carefully crafted script doesn’t want us to be.
Throughout the play, moreover, the sight of three fully grown actors pretending to be children while the other actors are being adults produces a clumsy effect. It’s remniscent of Alice trying to peer through the little doorway.
This production could have used a “Drink Me” bottle. It’s hard to work with child actors, I know — but LA is full of teens who have the chops. I’ve acted with and directed several. For this play, so finely balanced, finding three of them is worth whatever it costs.
Finally, I want to note again Marks’ delightful, nuanced presentation of Dodgson, in a very challenging role with hardly a breath offstage. Erica Hanrahan-Ball turns the opposite trick: Given few lines yet many entrances, she almost dances Mrs. Liddell into being, building a formidable antagonist with her movements, gestures and glances. And Jeff Marlow — in a fine sleight of hand — brings unity to the White Rabbit, who emerges id-like from a trap-door “underground” as the daemon of Dodgson’s repressed desire, yet also must function as his butler and publisher.
In The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll, the Boston Court players invite us into a many-layered world where a reserved young man with a genius for play meets a girl young whose brilliance — and beauty — are as yet unrecognized. Even with a major misstep, it’s a journey well worth taking. And Missing Pages, while far from the first drama to explore the complex mystery that inspired Alice in Wonderland, may well prove one of the best.
The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll, by Lily Blau, directed by Abigail Deser.
Presented by The Theatre @ Boston Court, at Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 N. Mentor Ave. (one block east of Lake St.), Pasadena.
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm, through March 1. (Wednesday, Feb. 25 at 8:00 pm, “Five Dollar Night,” no reservations accepted.)