"We live in a culture that's totally afraid of death," Sarah Ruhl told TheaterMania in 2007. "But it does seem to be a preoccupation of mine, this tenuous link between living people and dead people."
The questions of mortality and the grieving process factor heavily into many of Ruhl's plays, from Eurydice, in which a young woman reunites with her late father in the underworld, to The Clean House, where a woman dying of breast cancer reveals that she'll be set free simply by being told a joke.
For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday, directed by Les Waters at Playwrights Horizons, begins with five siblings keeping vigil around their father's hospital bed. They're not children anymore — Ann (Kathleen Chalfant), the oldest, has just turned 70, and Wendy, the youngest, is in her late 50s — and they all have prosperous lives — Jim (David Chandler) and Michael (Keith Reddin) are doctors, while John (Daniel Jenkins) is a college professor — but with mom long gone and dad (Ron Crawford) on the threshold of death, the brothers and sisters must confront the idea of truly growing up for the first time.
In a twist emblematic of Ruhl's oeuvre, the playwright blends this starkly naturalistic image with something much more fanciful. As the siblings spend one final night together in their parents' house, consuming bottles of Jameson and arguing over politics and religion, Ann, who admits that she's never actually felt like an adult, morphs into the quintessential character who never grew up: Peter Pan.
In her youth, Ann played the role for the Davenport Children's Theater in her native Iowa. But now, as Ann becomes Peter once again, she realizes how difficult vanquishing Captain Hook (Chandler) can be when you're suffering from gout. And as fun as a swashbuckling adventure on a pirate ship is, everyone would much rather just go home to see their spouses and children.
Ruhl's story of J.M. Barrie's iconic characters gone to seed is the most moving aspect of For Peter Pan, a play that ultimately gets stuck midway between banal family drama and a surrealistic meditation on aging. It's hard not to prefer the latter, as Ruhl, who wrote this play as a gift to her mother, Kathleen (who, as a youngster, played Peter Pan in Davenport, Iowa, and subsequently played Ann in a Chicago production of For Peter Pan), mines this adult interpretation for all of its dramatic potential. Waters gives these moments the full-throttle treatment, complete with colorful costumes (by Kristopher Castle) and onstage flying (yes, Kathleen Chalfant flies in lime green Peter Pan tights).
Everything that comes before these scenes lies on the stage in a way that feels physically and emotionally stagnant. Waters's miscalculated staging, on an ungainly David Zinn set that blends a hospital room, a front porch, and a children's theater version of Neverland, keeps the actors at arm's length away from genuine emotion, to the detriment of the text itself. No one in this ensemble of actors really captures the recognizable humanity, grief, and ultimate realization needed to translate Ruhl's ideas from stage to audience. Even Chalfant always seems like she's acting the part instead of truly living it. It's especially disconcerting when we realize that much of this company, and Waters himself, have been with the play since its earliest incarnations.
In her program notes, Ruhl mentions that her goal in For Peter Pan was to write a "play about one's family with love" without it "being a 'family drama' of the sort that hinges on mudslinging and skeletons in the closet." Her intentions are honorable, certainly, but her product is too firmly situated in the nursery, when it really needed to reach the second star to the right and fly straight on till morning.
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