REVIEW: Growing Up and Growing Old in “For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday”
Perched in the corner of the lobby of Playwrights Horizons on 42nd Street is one of those classic, classroom chalkboards on wheels, bluntly posing the question—scrawled in chalk—“when did you feel grown up?”
That inquiry is at the heart of Sarah Ruhl’s latest play, “For Peter Pan on her 70th” Birthday”, which opened at Playwrights Horizons on Wednesday night. I caught an early preview of the show, and though it felt like a work still in development, I found it mostly enjoyable and deeply personal. The Peter Pan referenced in the title is Ruhl’s own mother, who, like the play’s protagonist, played the role in community theatre as a child. Ms. Ruhl wrote this play for her mother. And in a meta exercise worthy of a Charlie Kaufman film, Ruhl’s mother recently played the part, a fictionalized version of herself, onstage in Chicago.
The play centers around an urbane woman, the legendary and stunning Kathleen Chalfant (“Angels in America”, “Wit”), returning to her childhood hometown in Iowa to reunite with her four siblings on the occasion of their father’s impending death. After a disarming prologue-monologue starts the show sans fanfare, as delivered by Ms. Chalfant as a masterclass in naturalism, a long, borderline-tedious opening scene demonstrates the painful experience of waiting for a loved one to die. The assembled siblings pace their father’s hospital room, debate and discuss his treatment (at least two are doctors themselves) and the existence of the afterlife, sleep, reminisce, and say goodbye. As such situations are want to produce in “real” life, a crisp profile of each character is sketched during this scene with an impressive economy of words, looks, and gestures.
The siblings then retreat to their family home for more conversation, reflection, and argument around the dining room table, fueled by alcohol—an “Irish wake”—before the play’s third act transports us to Neverland in a charming and witty sequence that tells the Peter Pan fable using our middle-aged characters as players, arthritis and all. This final part of the play is clever and theatrical, but lacks the sustained magic and dramatic power it could possess. Like so much in this play, it feels both too personal and unrealized.
At its core, this is a play about family, particularly negotiating one’s place in the family unit; it’s about growing up and growing old; saying goodbye to parents; and realizing that sometimes the only thing tying adult siblings together is a shared past. In her playwright’s essay printed in the program, Ms. Ruhl writes of developing the play: “I wondered if it was possible to write a play about one’s family without it being a ‘family drama’ of the sort that hinges on mudslinging and skeletons in the closet. I wondered if it was possible to write a play about one’s family with love ...” In this question, Ms. Ruhl has challenged herself to do something few playwrights have done, to produce a drama without drama. It’s an intriguing proposition. The results are mixed.
I must admit I am newer to Ms. Ruhl’s work, but what I have seen, I have very much enjoyed. Her writing is rich, thrilling, wry, and teeming with thought and thought-provoking ideas. As the best of playwrights do, Ms. Ruhl, who teaches playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, is in dialogue with her audience and restless with traditional forms. She invites us to participate, and there can be no doubt that she is a magnificent playwright who can wield words and present ideas to transport, challenge, and enlighten.
In “For Peter Pan,” however, she too-often cedes the power of her pen’s precision in favor of covering more ground, perhaps because it is such a personal play—a “gift play” as she terms it—or perhaps because the impetus motivating the play is itself too abstract and academic. To wit, an exchange in the second act about the diverging political beliefs of the siblings, a conversation that fast devolves, feels au courant despite this play being a period piece set in the late 1990s, but that tantalizing tangent unfortunately remains unexplored in any probing way. Ms. Ruhl makes a point—that political polarization is tearing even at the fabric of the family unit—then moves on. Likewise, a ghost of the deceased father, the long-dead family dog by his side, intermittently trails the siblings at home, making for a few funny moments, but then he’s gone. And even that final fantasia of a scene opens with a burst of magic, then gets tired and un-interesting.
As I stated at the top of this review, I left the theatre and couldn’t help but feel this play was a bit scattered, as if still in development. This is not Ms. Ruhl’s best play. It is certainly her most personal, perhaps even her favorite. She has unapologetically written it as a gift for her mother, an intrinsic endeavor free from the gaze of commercial approval, and I appreciate Playwrights Horizons for giving it a worthy platform in New York.
Bottom Line: “For Peter Pan” poses some good questions, but falls short of being the play it could and ambitiously set out to be.
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: September 14, 2017
Final Performance: October 1, 2017