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Imagination propels 'Pan'

The Arden's beguiling production soars on its ingenious sets and design.

If the Arden Theatre's production of Peter Pan has one goal, it is to reinforce the idea that imaginative play is not the sole domain of professionals. It's an important lesson for overscheduled children, whose video game consoles and computers see all the leisure time action.

Douglas Irvine's 2008 adaptation hews closely to the high points of J.M. Barrie's original tale about the lad who won't grow up, his merry band of Lost Boys, Wendy, the fairy Tinkerbell, and Captain Hook, the angry pirate who wants a mommy of his own. But it's the Arden's design team that really soars, its unified vision of jury-rigged steampunkish detritus and Victoriana a playground for David O'Connor's athletic direction.

Tom Gleeson's set uses wires, pipes, enormous cogs, and exposed ductwork to create an epic hide-and-seek-worthy attic space, lit with moody shadows by Matt Frey. Richard St. Clair's costumes - black, buckled, laced, and strapped - borrow more than a few pages from the lookbook of Philly corsetier Psydde Delicious and Zipperhead-era South Street. Combined with Morgan Fitzpatrick Andrews' Lost Boy puppets, constructed of household items such as watering cans, mops, and dustpans, Peter Pan becomes a fantasy that's tantalizingly within reach.

Aside from veteran local actor Frank X, who gnaws scenery in a curiously Shakespearean reading of evil Hook, this cast is packed with up-and-comers who leap, shimmy, and perch around the set as though it were a jungle gym. Chris Bresky's agile Peter Pan and University of the Arts student Jacqueline Real as Wendy, though sweet, don't make an electric pairing - Real still needs a bit more seasoning, though Bresky's energetic performance somewhat compensates for an occasional emotional distance.

The other cast members pull triple, quadruple or quintuple duty. But of these, Bi Jean Ngo, who gets to spout rapid-fire Vietnamese while dangling Tinkerbell at the end of a fishing rod, stands out for her uninhibited comic skill.

Irvine's gentle script is clearly geared to children. But I'll readily admit that it held a few moments of real poignancy - particularly when Wendy (ahem) cedes youth and Peter to her own daughter and accepts the limits of adulthood. It even pulled a few more sentimental tears from me than did the Arden's grown-up upstairs offering, the Pulitzer-winning Rabbit Hole. And if I ever happen on my children in the garage, cobbling together makeshift characters out of gardening tools, I'll know exactly which design team to thank.

Peter Pan

At the Arden Theatre,

40 N. Second St.

Through Jan. 24.

Tickets: $16 to $32.

Information: 215-922-1122 or