Saturday, September 30, 2017

For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday - A Tale of Family, Childhood and Mortality

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The subtext to the question "when did you grow up" is "when did you stop being a child"? A question explored in Sarah Ruhl’s bittersweet drama For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday at Playwrights Horizons.

In the 1990s, in a hospital room in DavenportIowa, five middle-aged Irish-Catholic siblings have gathered for the death watch of their father (Ron Crawford). As the waiting continues, the group talks about various issues, ranging from the current occupant in the White House (one "Slick Willy") to exactly when to turn off the machines keeping their dad alive. Or, if they should. In the end, the father takes that particular matter out of his children’s hands, shuffling off this mortal coil on his own.

Later on, at the family home, the five hold a traditional Irish wake for the parent they have just lost. While also coming to terms with, among other things, the fact that they are now orphans. The conversation a mixture of childhood reminisces, Catholicism, God, Santa Claus and some rather passionate political viewpoints. Particularly interesting is an offered explanation – as it applied to their father – of how one can claim to be against a welfare state, yet still ostensibly take money from the government. The family chemistry comfortable enough so that the opinions offered are exchanged in an atmosphere free of permanent reprisal or condemnation. Though while the dynamic is now one of comfortable friction, there are suggestions it wasn’t always the case. Ann (Kathleen Chalfant), the eldest sibling in the brood, noting that since their mother died, there has been less arguing present.

Another question which comes up during the conversations is when did everything get so out of control in the world, and when people become so angry with each other? Said query a not-so-veiled reference to what is going on in the present day. The seeds of which were planted in this earlier generation, as well as the ones before that.

In the wake of their father's death, there comes the issue of the inevitability of change, and how the children deal with the thoughts of their own mortality. Some accepting its eventuality, others determined to ignore it as long as they can. The show asking the different characters just when they got to the point in their lives where anything was no longer possible and when they could no longer fly on dreams and fairy dust. Much like Peter Pan did in James M. Barrie’s classic play of the same name. Or, as one of the family (Keith Reddin) had as his childhood motto: “immorality through immaturity”. Yet as Ruhl goes on to demonstrate, that outlook changes when one's adult responsibilities, such as work and family, not to mention new possibilities for the future, becomes more important than childhood dreams.
Ruhl, who conceived the show as present for her mother - who also played the Barrie creation in her youth - has a lot of fun with so-called "Peter Pan metaphor". (Of the five family members, three are named John, Michael and Wendy.) While also showing what happens when those who were once children, become too old to simply fly away.

This idea being wonderfully realized in a sequence which seamlessly combines the realities of the adult world with the magic and seeming invincibility of youth. One complete with an appearance by Captain Hook – David Chandler doing a deliciously devilish turn in the role. There’s also an errant shadow, a childhood nursery, and the sound of an ominous ticking clock. An object which could also be construed as a wistful comment on the passage of time.

Despite the show’s strong overall message, the work falters when it comes to characterization. There being, with one exception, little depth to any of the characters presented. The family, especially the three brothers - John (Daniel Jenkins), Michael (Keith Reddin), and Jim (Chandler) - being pretty interchangeable with one another. The group staking out various moral positions, with the audience never given the chance to find out who these people really are underneath. Even though we do get a look at their various backgrounds. This oversimplification thus lessening the story's emotional impact.

The only character who comes across fully formed is Ann. Chalfant doing an excellent job portraying her both as a staunch liberal and the only one in the family who never lost her childlike outlook on how things are supposed to be. She often clinging to that perception with a stubborn resistance to reality. It also helps that Ann figures much more into the makeup of the story than any of the others.

Crawford does a nice job as the father. His character serving as a both an emotional reminder and anchor to the other characters and their reactions.

The show is nicely directed by Les Waters. Though some of the time spent in the hospital could be cut without losing anything important.

Light on characterization and with a rather slow start, For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday remains a tale with an involving and gentle moral core. One showing that while we all have to grow up eventually, retaining that childlike sense of wonder is still possible.

Featuring: Kathleen Chalfant (Ann), Daniel Jenkins (John), Keith Reddin (Michael), David Chandler (Jim/Captain Hook), Lisa Emery (Wendy), Ron Crawford (The Father), Macy (A dog).

For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday

by Sarah Ruhl

Scenic Designer: David Zinn
Costume Designer: Kristopher Castle
Lighting Designer: Matt Frey
Original Music and Sound Design: Bray Poor & Charles Coes
Animals by: William Berloni Theatrical Animals
Fight and Fly Director: Ryan Bourque
Flying Effects: ZFX Flying Effects
Production Stage Manager: Amanda Spooner
Assistant Stage Manager: Shelly Miles

Directed by Les Waters

Playwrights Horizons
Mainstage Theater
416 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Closes: October 1, 2017