backstage (2006-08)

Neverland Lost

After more than 2,600 performances, Cathy Rigby’s wings are tired

by Kevin Crowe

She’s whooshing above you, swashbuckling, tumbling—Is she out of control?—yet she still manages to sprinkle trust and a bit of pixie dust for countless audiences who’ve always had a part of them that never seemed to grow up. “Parents tend to watch it through the eyes of their children,” Cathy Rigby says. “The reaction that I get is that it touches people deeply, not frivolously.”

It’s visceral, perhaps a tad bit vestigial, seeing the boy who never grew up onstage, the timeless brainchild of Scottish author J.M. Barrie. “It’s the adults who always amaze me,” Rigby explains, “that this story that’s 100 years old touches them so much. It always surprises me.” That kind of absolute delight, however, wasn’t always the case. The Pan we know and love is the product of more than a century of literary evolution.

In its nascent form, the story focused on a boy who’d been a bird before he was a boy. He escapes the human-life when he’s only seven days old, because he still thinks he’s a bird and nonchalantly flies out the nursery window. This form of Peter flies to the island of the birds-who-become-children and hangs out with magic birds and sultry fairies. At night, he roams the woods looking for lost children. If they’re alive, he takes them to fairytown. If they’re dead, he digs graves for them. A bit macabre, no doubt, far from the image of the carefree trickster we’re used to. At the end of the archetypical version, the narrator says, “I do hope Peter is not too ready with his spade. It is all rather sad.”

Thankfully, on Dec. 27, 1904, a theater troupe in London sparked interest in the story when it held the first stage production. Then, in 1911, in response to the play’s success, Barrie reworked the play as a novel. Since then, after many, many re -interpretations, the character we now know came into being. And the major theme, echoing William Blake’s Songs of Innocence vis-à-vis Songs of Experience , became cornerstones of children’s literature. But, the popularity of Barrie’s novel notwithstanding, Peter Pan has become a phenomenon that can’t accurately be expressed on page; it has to be seen, in person, either on screen or on stage. The real fairy dust, it would seem, happens in real time, not through language, because the experience is somehow more primeval than reading will allow.

Disney’s 1953 version may be the primary factor that helped turn the early grave-digging Peter into the happy-go-lucky eternal child we expect to see today. In 1955, ’56 and again in ’60, Mary Martin’s portrayal of Peter onstage and on television became the gold standard, paving the way for a long line of petite woman to don the green tights. Since then, no one has taken this role to heart more than Cathy Rigby, ever since she first took flight in 1974.

“The gentleman who got me started in theater said, ‘Would you like to do Peter Pan.’ And I said ‘Yes, of course,’” Rigby reminisces, adding: “I love it. I love doing it. That, on top of the flying and the singing.... It also made me aware of what you had to do to compete in another arena.” Before her theatrical career, Rigby finished as the highest-scoring U.S. gymnast at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Her face, back then, became synonymous with athletic intensity.

“The great thing is that I’ve never burned out,” Rigby says. “It’s great to have had two passions in life.” Yet after several thousand performances as Peter, she’s ready to stretch into other, fresher roles. For about a decade, she and her husband, Tom McCoy, got involved offstage, fostering productions that range from To Kill a Mockingbird to, you guessed it, Rigby’s final tour as Pan. “I still plan on doing theater. I’ll just keep doing what I love,” she says. “I think I’m much better suited for on the stage than behind it.”

That’s good news for all the fans who have stayed young with her. For them, for all of their support throughout the decades, she says that this final tour will be memorable. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that she’ll continue her acting career in other capacities, there’s a bittersweet reality ensconcing this tour. “This show has taken on another kind of reality in that I hear that it’s a richer show in terms of believability,” she explains. “In the show itself I feel a lot more comfortable. It becomes’s like it’s just coming through you. It’s as believable as it gets for me.”

Her believability and effortlessness are what made her portrayal iconic. But even Sean Connery had to leave the James Bond persona behind in order to wear an orange speedo and bandoleers in the beautiful cinematic turd Zardoz in 1974. Whatever direction Rigby’s future roles take her, she’s sure to do it with the same grace and intensity that have made her such a success in the past.

“I don’t know how I got so lucky,” Rigby muses. “I really don’t. I want to keep doing what I do.”

Who: Cathy Rigby