September 16, 2017

"For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday" is a Gift for Theater Lovers Ready to Grow Up

Ever since a friend died earlier this summer at the relatively young age of 62, I've been preoccupied with death. So For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday, Sarah Ruhl's warm-hearted meditation on mortality which opened at Playwrights Horizons this week, really hit my sweet spot, even if most critics are sour on the show (click here for those reviews).

Although the play runs just 90 minutes, it's a triptych that moves from a deathbed, to the quotidian rituals of mourning to the reluctant acknowledgement that some day we too must die.

Ruhl has said that she wrote the play as a present for her mother, an occasional actress whose favorite role was playing the character Peter Pan, who famously never wants to grow old.  (Click here to read more about its origins). 

Ann, the central character in the play, is one of the five siblings who sit vigil in a hospital room as their aged father dies. She's also the odd duck in her Iowa-raised clan, an early widow who has raised a child on her own and lost a little of her faith unlike her still-married and pious sister, gotten a degree later in life than her doctor brothers and still cherishes the memory of appearing as the title character in her high school production of Peter Pan.

As Ann and her brothers and sister grieve their beloved father, they hold a wake, complete with Irish whiskey, and retell old stories about the past and share their thoughts about what death and the afterlife may bring, from the nihilism of nothingness to the comforting spiritualism of ever-present ghosts, to the whimsy of a Neverland where life and youth are eternal.

Director Les Waters has assembled a top-notch cast to spin this tale. David Chandler, Lisa Emery, Daniel Jenkins and Keith Reddin are lovely as Ann's siblings whose lives have taken them to different parts of the country and down disparate philosophical paths but whose love for one another binds them together. Ron Crawford is particularly affecting as their dad.

But this production had me from the moment I learned that Ann would be played by Kathleen Chalfant, an actor who seems incapable of giving less than a brilliant performance. Here she soars again, and in more ways than one as she grounds the character in a determined optimism and literally takes to the air as Ann assumes her Peter Pan personae.

As my theatergoing buddy Bill and I left the theater, I overhead some audience members grumbling that the show, particularly the wake part, had been too slow. But it seemed just right to me, calling to mind the times that sitting with other mourners and sharing old stories had brought comfort when I lost someone.  

I hate audience participation but when, evoking a moment in J.M. Barrie's original play, we were asked to clap so that Peter could live, I slapped my hands together as hard as I could. 

This is the second Playwrights Horizons production this year, following Adam Bock's A Life, to deal head-on with the subject of death but Ruhl's wry humor keeps For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday from being depressing. Instead it's a reminder that the best way to face death may be with a defiant smile. 

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