For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday is a gift by playwright Sarah Ruhl to her actor mother, Kathleen, who plays herself in this three-part family story. The 85-minute play is two parts memory play and one part children’s theater. The elements don’t quite coalesce in this bland production.
Shattered Globe Theatre’s new production, directed by Jessica Thebus, opens with a prologue about Ann (Kathleen Ruhl) playing Peter Pan in 1955 in the Davenport Children’s Theater production in Davenport, Iowa. She shows us the old theater program.
In the first scene, we meet five siblings on a death vigil at their father’s bedside. When George (Doug McDade) dies, the siblings link arms and say a prayer. The second scene is a classic Irish Catholic wake. They sit around a family table with a bottle of Irish whiskey. It’s time to reminisce, tell family stories and drink—in preparation for the funeral.
George, now a ghost, keeps shuffling in to read his paper, drink orange juice mixed with Metamucil, and feed his dog (a very much alive and well-behaved spaniel named Ophelia, who reappears as Nana in the third scene). His children don’t see him, but they are occasionally aware of his presence. And that’s the way it is sometimes. A loved one dies but some of his survivors may feel his presence lingering.
Ann is the oldest sibling. Wendy (Eileen Niccolai) is the youngest. The three boys are Jim (Ben Werling), a surgeon; John (H.B. Ward), an internist; and Michael (Patrick Thornton). The men all seem to be Republicans and occasionally political barbs are thrown in this Clinton-era setting.
In the third scene, the siblings find the old trunk filled with costumes and For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday becomes Peter Pan, with John, Michael and Wendy playing their original roles and Jim becoming Captain Hook. Ann plays Peter Pan and takes the three siblings off to Neverland. Fortunately, it’s an abbreviated version of Peter Pan—if it was a children’s theater production, you’d be hoping that the kid you brought finds something to like about it.
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday ultimately fails to enchant because there’s not much original in the family scenes and the Neverland scene is clunky. The underlying theme of not wanting to grow up (like Peter Pan) can be read as not wanting to die. Your parents’ deaths also mean you now have to be the grownup. But Sarah Ruhl’s talent with dialogue and Thebus’s direction can’t manage to invigorate this play.
Ruhl’s plays have frequently been produced in Chicago (The Clean House; Dead Man’s Cell Phone; Passion Play; In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, among others). For Peter Pan premiered at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival and was staged at Berkeley Rep last summer.
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday continues by Shattered Globe Theatre, at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through May 20. Buy tickets for performances Thursday-Sunday for $35 or call the box office at 773-975-8150.