‘Wendy House’ reminds Tampa that it’s lucky to have theater that focuses solely on new work

In a theater world that thrives on adaptations or revival, LAB presents world premieres every time out.

click to enlarge Zachary Finley (L) and Tyler Wood in 'The Wendy House,' which is at Lab Theater Project in Ybor City, Florida through May 23, 2021. - LAB THEATER PROJECT
Lab Theater Project
Zachary Finley (L) and Tyler Wood in 'The Wendy House,' which is at Lab Theater Project in Ybor City, Florida through May 23, 2021.

Detective John Henning (Tyler Wood) has a problem. His partner’s death has brought Sheriff George Darling’s less than stable foster son back to town. They clash at the Bloomsbury Cemetery gravesite hovering over a baseball glove placed before the tombstone as thunder cracks in the distance—foreshadowing the upheaval to come. But there’s something off about Sebastian (Zachery Finley), and John has a hunch that he may hold the key to solving a cold case. In fact, Jonah Robertson’s driving preshow rock score asks, “What the hell is going on?” The ensuing 95 minutes take us on a harrowing ride with a light touch. It’s escapism with generous humor and periodic electric shocks as the layers of the story unfold.

Playwright Hector Melendez-Figueroa has written a superbly-crafted play that manages to touch on a range of serious, intractable issues by wrapping them in light-hearted fantasy that riffs on characters from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. The play juxtaposes delightful, funny encounters between Sebastian and his childhood friends, Wendy and the “lost boys” from Neverland, with horrors of foster care gone awry. As Sebastian searches for peace while fighting mental illness, he escapes into fantasy joined by boyhood pals now depicted as a turtle, a fox, and a giraffe. The trouble is Detective Henning can’t see them, but somehow knows that they hold the key to unearthing the truth of how and why the old house on the hill burned down.

The Wendy House
The LAB Theater Project
812 E Henderson Ave., Tampa
Tickets: $28-30; in person, livestream through May 23 (on demand until May 30)
labtheaterproject.com

Set/costume wizard Beth Tepe-Robertson pulls off a bit of a miracle with her designs for a company that by its very nature is perennially under-resourced. From the moment you enter LAB’s intimate space, The Wendy House is enchanting. Sebastian’s childhood haunt in the woods is a wonderfully cobweb-covered, decaying fantasy world. Along with prop master, Rachel Stidham, she presents visual clues of the fractured childhood story to come. A Raggedy Ann doll sits in a nook created by the grandfather clock against the left wall of rotting pine boards. Chintz-patterned hat boxes sit atop an old suitcase downstage. Upstage, there’s an old chair with a blanket and a satin-striped pillow. Old hardware crates, which double for seats, litter the space. At the back wall below an old framed chalkboard is a Peter Pan green chest, which later provides Sebastian toys to unlock long hidden memories. The right side is merely studs, but the old door remains where Sebastian hangs a weathered sign confirming that this is indeed “the Wendy house” safe haven of his youth. It turns out that Sebastian’s Neverland is not some childhood dream, but a seedy nightmare.

Melendez-Figueroa peppers his script with familiar names. After all, how can we forget Hook, Nana, and (Tiger) Lily? But figuring out who the villain is (and why and how) takes us on a fascinating journey raising questions about our justice system, childhood abandonment and the enormous challenges of foster care, religious zealotry, homophobia, and the unfathomable labyrinth of mental illness on the path to finding truth. The first act ends with a shocking revelation.

Tampa Bay is extremely lucky that the LAB Theater Project is here to nurture talent and support new work. Every production is a world premiere, which is a marketing nightmare in a culture that thrives on adaptations or revivals. Audiences are reluctant often to spend money on the unknown. But new work is the life’s blood of the theatre and it, generally, takes time. The Wendy House spent six years in development and the result is an entertaining ride with surprises galore to keep the audience continually engaged. LAB has survived by offering a livestream, which Robertson proudly announces in his pre-show welcome has gone international with audiences as far afield as Africa and India. But it’s wonderful to be back with your butt in a seat sharing moments with fellow audience members. Another benefit of attending in person (which I recommend if you’ve been vaccinated) is a splendid display of visual art by a quartet of talented painters in the gallery adjacent to the theater. Each artist displays a distinctive style with glorious details and enchanting use of color. Complete info is on LAB’s website.

Executive Producer, Owen Robertson, who mentored the playwright from the beginning and helped shape the script, skillfully stages (and lights) his committed group of performers. Mr. Finley moves seamlessly from playful to painful memories, while Mr. Wood is intense in his search for the truth, but yields to empathy for Sebastian as the facts unfold. Emma Hurlburt is the perfect embodiment of the bossy Wendy as she welcomes the adult Sebastian back into his fantasy world with the lost boys. Robertson mines the script’s ample humor with delightful performances by Katie Calahan (Tommy/turtle), Miles Randolph (Michael/fox) and Ricardo Fernandez (Dennis/giraffe). They’re absolutely adorable in Ms. Tepe-Robertson’s animal attire and properly disappointed when Sebastian finally confesses that being an adult “sucks.”

Just when you think you’ve reached the denouement with all the many plot threads neatly woven together, the playwright ends with a touching supernatural “TinkerBell” moment. Robertson seizes upon the chance to stamp a visual coda on the evening. It’s one last striking image—a dramatic tug on our emotions that plucks the heart strings, which continually reverberate long after the lights fade and we head out into the night.

Theater is expensive, and Creative Loafing Tampa Bay devotes editorial budget to it because it’s essential to cover local playwrights, actors and the venues that support them. Support arts journalism in these crazy days and consider making a one time or monthly donation to help support our staff. Every little bit helps.

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About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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