Lisa Emery, Keith Reddin, David Chandler, Kathleen Chalfant, & Scott Jaeck, in For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday. Photo byBill Brymer.
For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday
By Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Les Waters
Review by Rachel White
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Rachel White. All rights reserved.
In the opening monologue of For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday, Ann (Kathleen Chalfant), the eldest of her siblings, reminisces about a part she played as a young woman; the part was Peter Pan; she doesn’t know why people laugh when she tells the story, she says; she is the image of Mary Martin, or at least how you might remember Mary Martin to look at 70, strong features, long neck, short cropped blonde hair combed back, warm and cheerful with something intelligent underneath. It is the start of a metaphor that Ruhl returns to again and again, unabashedly mining it for all that it is, in a play that seems to be about everything: life, the death of one’s parents, politics, spirituality, and finally about growing up, whatever that might mean.
A family of grown children, Ann, Michael (Keith Reddin), John (Scott Jaeck), Jim (David Chandler), and Wendy (Lisa Emery), all well into middle age, gather around their dying father, George’s (Ron Crawford) hospital bed. They display the weary boredom of people who have been in a hospital room a long time. Ann casually calls out for help with a crossword clue and the others enthusiastically oblige, chiding each other for pathetic guesses. Their behavior toward one another is what you would expect from members of a family who love each other: gentle, teasing, sometimes bickering. Their conversations are punctuated by the slow rhythmic beeps of Jim’s heart monitor. It is a realistically paced scene without the typical tears and dramatic outburst of a hospital room drama. When you watch, you think that how they are behaving is so weird, but then you realize – it’s not so weird. This is how people are when death has been coming for a long time. It isn’t going to come as a shock when George dies in the next hour or so, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to hurt. At the suggestion that George’s morphine be increased due to his pain, Ann bursts into tears and describes the memory of her dog perking up moments before he was euthanized. At this Catholic hospital, euthanasia is not allowed, but upping the morphine every hour or so is okay to “stop the pain.” The siblings decide to let George go naturally, and naturally he does, night going by and morning coming again, he jerks in sudden pain and quiets all together. Of all the scenes in the play, this is the most difficult to watch, as it feels so private, right down to the suctioning of George’s throat, and the family’s spontaneously bursting into prayer and song with the “Our Father” and “Oh When the Saints” at his death. It is utterly engrossing, almost like peeking inside a stranger’s hospital room. Then the family disperses and a marching band enters and plays “Oh When the Saints,” and we are deep in Sarah Ruhl territory.
What follows is a post-wake conversation among the siblings around a kitchen table that ranges from Clinton era politics (the play takes place in the ‘90s) to religion, to the existence of Santa Claus and unicorns. It is a conversation that reveals much about the people in the scene, who they have become, who they were, their varied relationships to George, their rich Catholic heritage, some embracing it – others rejecting it; in Ann’s case she couldn’t accept the wrongs the Church had committed. And just when you think you’re dealing with realism, George’s ghost walks in and uses the bathroom. Moments like these are as hilarious as they are stunning and thought provoking.
Les Waters directs a tight ensemble cast, keeping the play at a deliberate pace and uniting the varied elements and genres of the script, so that what could feel disjointed feels seamless. Kristopher Castle’s costumes suggest the ‘90’s era without calling attention to them, as though the characters could exist in our time and would maybe be only slightly out of fashion.
The final scene of the play explodes (almost inevitably) into magical realism a la Never Land, and then returns to Ann, Peter Pan herself, in an ode to George’s life and the theater where, as Ann says, you don’t have to grow up. It’s a warm, funny, and thoughtful play for our times.
For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday
March 8 – April 10, 2016
Part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Rachel White received her MFA in playwriting from the New School for Drama, and her BA in English and Dramatic from Centre College. Her plays have been produced in New York at The New School, the Midtown International Theatre Festival and the American Globe Th.eater, in Los Angeles at Moving Arts Productions and the Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA. In Louisville, she has had productions at the Slant Culture Theatre Festival, the Tim Faulkner Gallery, and Finnigan Productions. She is a recipient of the Litwin Foundation Fellowship in Playwriting, and was recently a semi-finalist in the Labute New Theater Festival. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, and the Playwrights Gallery in New York