Kathleen Chalfant in For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday. Photo by Bill Brymer courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville.
For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday
Written by: Sarah Ruhl
Directed by: Les Waters
Comissioned by: Actors Theatre of Louisville, Humana Festival
Run dates: March 8 to April 10, 2016
Oh Ms. Ruhl. Your brand of personal truth-telling narrative interwoven with otherworldly insight delivers some of our most cherished contemporary theatre experiences. We’ve watched as you turned our heads comically, tragically, sociopolitically and sexually in a mishmash of realistic/magical narratives ranging from Greek myth (Eurydice) to sexual longing (Late, A Cowboy Song) to parental sacrifice (The Oldest Boy). In each of your efforts (fully successful or not) your ability to meld the world we live in with the world we dream of has burrowed your storytelling powers deep into the pits of our emotional hearts. So why then in perhaps your most personal play to date, do you exchange intellect for cliché and fantasy for silliness? Worse still, why do you abandon drop of a pin poignant intrigue to instead devolve into free for all folly? Why do you give us a play we can love so hard and yet dismiss so easily?
For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday is a love letter railing against the loss of the anointed adults in our lives and our intrinsic need to step up and fill their places. Or not. Whether you are 7, 47 or 70, losing a parent (the ultimate grown up influencer in our lives) is a traumatic event. Who else (if you are lucky enough to be raised in familial health) will tell you to sit up straight, push you to try your hardest, love you no matter what and be the person you want to impress above all else? Who else will you try to emulate or perhaps try your hardest to be most unlike?
Ruhl drops us into this offspring place of sadness/decision in none other than a Clinton era Iowa hospital room as a family of grown, accomplished children with families of their own watch and wait for the final moments of their beloved father’s life. Three boys and two girls (ages 50 to 70 and already over their mother’s death some years earlier) navigate the dying room routine as their machine hooked up patriarch beeps and boops according to the various machines tasked with reporting his latest diminishing vital signs.
Ann (an instantly likable and warmly charming Kathleen Chalfant) the eldest and bookishly smartest of the siblings (now a lauded teacher) has narrated us into the story with an opening monologue fondly describing her turn on the boards as Peter Pan when she was just a teenager. A production her father did not miss despite his post depression era, grueling, ‘lift himself up by his bootstraps’ work ethic.
Now as she and her siblings John, Michael, Jim and Wendy (Barney O’Hanlon, Keith Reddin, David Chandler and Lisa Emery) gather by their father’s bedside, the only bootstraps to pull up are the emotional ones. These hospital room moments are perfectly painful in the slow death crawl of nothingness. Director Les Waters allows for lengthy uncomfortable silences to pass as the five siblings pace or remain static listening intently to their fathers every breath or lack there of. Occasionally they pass time humorously needling each other the way only close family can get away with. Death, Ruhl shows us, is not quick, dramatic or climatic in the slightest. It’s slow and boring and in the end quite pedantic. It’s what happens post death that matters and it’s what Ruhl and therefore we are interested in.
Shame then that the scene change that takes us from hospital room to pseudo wake at the family dining table is jarringly interrupted by a less than stellar “When the Saints Go Marching In” band of musicians. While the set change noisily goes on backstage, our curiously flat marching band (are they supposed to be playing at this diminished level?) snake through the audience under the glow of full wattage house lights, leaving us amused but perplexed and utterly broken of the spell so carefully crafted previously.
We let is go though because what we’re gifted with in the following scenes (executed with precise sensitivity by Waters) is pure Ruhl magic. Well half of it is at any rate. While the siblings gather at their family home, drinking, reminiscing and arguing over their political and religious divides (a surprisingly retread sit-comish discussion of right vs left and belief vs godlessness that disappoints in its mediocrity ) our attention is thankfully distracted by the supernatural. Quietly and without fanfare, the siblings’ father wanders in and out of the room in matter of fact ghostliness, going about his unnoticed but yet remarked upon activities. He uses the toilet and the siblings talk about how the pipes have always run. A family dog is mentioned and the father appears with the also deceased pet, brought in to clean up the food scraps from a bowl he has dropped. A bowl whose noise has fleetingly scared the siblings into thinking a sign is being sent their way. Is the father a visual metaphor for their memory or are we to believe that the deceased continue on whether we can see them or not? Ruhl teases us in both directions and we delight in the game no matter what our feeling on the afterlife are.
But Ruhl’s supremely satisfying subtle nods give way to bloated gestures after the topic of adulthood comes up at the table. When did each sibling feel that they became adults is the theme posited at near the end of the wake. All except Ann, express finding grown-upness at some stage in their lives. Ann, despite her more advanced age, single parenthood (a product of being widowed) and celebrated profession, claims that shedding the mindset of childhood is something she has never mastered nor wanted to. Like Peter Pan, she never wants to grow up and wishes to remain flying in Neverland. Always the spirit of a child and never afraid of death.
Of course we know that Ruhl can’t resist the fantasy that this conjures, and so she grants Ann her wish. After finding her old Peter Pan costume and trying it on for size, we are transported into J.M.Barrie’s story with Ann and her siblings filling in for Peter, the Darling characters and dastardly old Hook. We have fun with it for a while, this watching senior citizens with their aches and pains pretend to be a crowing Pan and his rambunctious followers. But it doesn’t take long watching the shadow searching, sword fighting, attempts at flying and farcical silliness before we are bored with the gimmick. The metaphor is lovely and Ruhl does eventually come to her senses and allow her characters something to say amongst all this foolishness. But by the time the siblings part ways with Ann choosing life over make believe, we can’t help but feel like we we’ve been watching a panto holiday extravaganza rather than one of Ruhl’s deeply meaningful mythic meditations.
Ruhl has said that she created For Peter Pan as a gift to her actor mother (who herself played Peter in her youth) and their big Iowa family. No doubt there is a labor of love in Ruhl’s examination of a family dealing with loss and wanting to stop and/or reverse time. Who in difficult times hasn’t wished they could go back to the simplistic joys of ever lasting childhood? But it’s as though this childishness got the better of Ruhl here, dumbing down potentially intriguing discussion into obvious sound bites and belaboring the fantastical into mere antics.It seems that even the best of our playwrights can get blinded by fairy dust.