For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday: Sarah Ruhl’s Gift to the Theater
Sarah Ruhl has said that she wrote For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday as a gift for her mother’s 70th birthday but it turns out to be a gift to the theater. Her bravery in exploring the landscape of this dysfunctional family without judgment and finding the love that binds them together is beautiful to behold. I was moved by the way she starts with the agonizing death of the characters’ father and allows us to be witness to how grief, jokes, memories, love, wounds, and Jamison’s Irish Whiskey lead the characters back to Neverland.
I was struck by the question that Ann asks, “Do you feel like a grown up?” and wondered if you could never really feel like a grown up until you experience the loss of your parents and were orphaned – even if that event happens well into your fifties, sixties or seventies. What happens when there is no longer a “home” to go to and traditions that were created in that place no longer exist? The idea that it is the parents that are holding the family together causes great uneasiness. As Ann says, “We’ve been having the same political argument for the past thirty years — the lamp over the table was the same — but now there are no parents to adjudicate. We’re supposed to be the grown ups now.” I am left questioning the time I have spent in my life trying to “be” a grown up when it may be growing up is not something that you do but rather it is something that happens to you. In that moment of transformation, will you know your childhood is over?
The director, Les Walters (PH’s The Christians), did an amazing job of creating a true family dynamic and I thought he helped create a world underneath the words so vibrantly. Even in the silences, I was drawn into the play. I enjoyed how he used the stage to give places for the characters to go in moments of conflict and how he also brought them together in moments of intimacy. I appreciated the simplicity of Neverland as it made use of our childhood imagination in order to believe. His staging was helped immensely by the set design by David Zinn (PH’s Hir) and lighting design by Matt Frey (PH’s A Life). As we moved from hospital room to kitchen to Neverland, I felt the energy shift and sensed each change helped the story move forward. I was also impressed with Bray Poor (PH’s Maple and Vine) & Charles Coes (Roundabout’s Robber Bridegroom), who composed the original music and created the sound design. The music was so beautifully woven into the play and it added depth to the story and what the characters were experiencing.
Ron Crawford (Broadway’s The Grapes of Wrath) is charming as The Father. He had such a grueling death scene but then when he left his deathbed, he became a peaceful presence in the lives of his children. His last scene with Peter Pan/Ann was so generous and touching that my heart swelled. Daniel Jenkins (Broadway’s Oslo) is appealing as John, the second oldest and a professor by trade and is adorable as John, the child in land of Peter Pan. He has a great mundane and practical quality as an adult so it is great to see him let loose in Neverland. Keith Reddin (Ruhl’s Passion Play) is wonderful as Michael, the second youngest and a doctor by trade, and is also delightful as Michael, the child in Peter Pan’s world. David Chandler (PH’s Doris to Darlene) is engaging as Jim, the middle child and also a doctor by trade and is a blast as Captain Hook. He completely dominates the scenes in Neverland with his deliciously narcissistic Hook.
As both Wendys, Lisa Emery (PH’s Marjorie Prime) is marvelous, portraying the youngest child of this family with a conservative and religious belief system and the child who flies with Peter Pan. She is so emotionally available as the adult Wendy and brought such heart to a very intellectual family. She is a joy as the child Wendy as her energy and passion pushes everyone, even Peter Pan, to Neverland.
Kathleen Chalfant (Wit, Broadway’s Angels in America), naturally, is superb as Ann/Peter Pan. From her first moment as she addresses the audience, you understand that she deeply understands this woman and we are in excellent hands. She is able to live in a world of agnostic intellectualism but when her father dies, she is forced to deal with her emotions. The second scene with her siblings at the kitchen table is a showcase of Ms. Chalfant’s incredible talents. Her doubts, fears and pain eruptes and creates a place for this family to heal. Her incredible journey back to Peter Pan and Neverland is not as fun as she had thought, but it feels necessary to spend one last night forever young.
We spend the last night in the nursery with Peter Pan, Tinker-bell and these siblings as they struggle to get back to Neverland. But even the joy of flying can no longer hold them in this fantasy and the “children” choose to leave behind the magic to embrace their lives as grown ups. Even Peter Pan/Ann must finally make peace with the memory of her father and leaves us with a lovely reminder of the enchanting powers of the theater, “But before I went home, I stayed in the theater for a little while longer. Where you don’t have to grow up.”