For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday

by Wickham Boyle

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday September 14, 2017

For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday

"For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday" is Sarah Ruhl's third New York premiere at Playwrights Horizon, following "Dead Man's Cell Phone" in 2008 and "Stage Kiss" in 2014. Ruhl, a two-time Pulitzer finalist and Tony-nominated writer, is a bit of a darling among the young thespian circle, and her plays rarely disappoint. Her newest is no exception.

The work opens with the ever-radiant and talented Kathleen Chalfant standing in front of the curtain speaking to the audience about her childhood playing Peter Pan in her hometown theater in America's heartland. Honestly, for a few beats I didn't know if this was a vamp-until-ready moment where the star comes out in a heartfelt way and connects to the audience.

Chalfant's demeanor and her delivery is so easy, natural and warm that it was as if she was telling each of us, in a packed house, her personal tale. She was transported back to a girlhood where she flew across a stage, met Mary Martin, and was handed flowers by her usually taciturn father. We are charmed.

And then the curtain opens to reveal Chalfant as Ann, the eldest in a gaggle of five adult children, all nervously surrounding their father, as he lies dying in a hospital bed. The children are John, a wonderful Daniel Jenkins, Michael played strongly by Keith Reddin, and Wendy, the always luminous Lisa Emery (following the names as the Darling children in J.M. Barrie's tale.) There is also another brother, Jim, who didn't become a doctor but stayed home and took care of their father as he aged. He is wonderfully poignant as embodied by David Chandler.

The siblings take turns hovering. Wendy rubs and anoints her father's feet; Michael and John both medical doctors read charts and kibitz about care and Ann tells stories and worries about every errant sound emanating from Ron Crawford, who plays the dying dad.

The kids discuss augmenting morphine to ease pain and also hasten death. They tell some stories about their youth and their parents. They miss their mom and the family dog. They sit in hospital chairs, or sleep fitfully on the floor. Behind them is a set that resembles what must be their childhood home.

When the father finally does pass, Ron Crawford rises from the bed and continues to act out some of the things being discussed, including playing with the long gone dog, the sparky and winsome Macy, a rescue dog from Oklahoma City.

This work unfolds in ninety minutes with no intermission, but there are breaks in the action where artfully the hospital furniture is wheeled to the side and the backdrop of the house becomes the home where after the wake the siblings sit and drink, except the youngest Wendy, who seems to be more sober in many facets of her life.

The range runs wildly from humorous recollections, to long held resentments, to confusions about their parents. This is the stuff of every family, but it is done well and we believe every speech and the actors are so suited to their characters, that it is as if we are eavesdropping on an actual family.

In and out of every recollection are specks of memory about Ann's big role, which seemed to recur often, playing Peter Pan. As the third act opens the house has resolved itself, in a genius set by David Zinn and has become the Darling home in London and the adults we met earlier are in nighties and top hats, all the trappings of the beloved Darling children. Even Macy the dog returns as Nana for a glimpse into the reverie.

Ann has found an old trunk, and again in front of the curtain, she changes into her old Pan costume, allowing for time for the set to morph and for us to once again feel that intimate rush. It is this portion of the play that for this reviewer holds the meat and the emotional payoff. Again the siblings taunt and tease each other, but the gist is about how to fly, how to be buoyantly happy so that you rise into the air and also age.

We all struggle with the unresolved issues from childhood, last week, decades ago, or what we might do wrong tomorrow, so letting go, filling our hearts and minds with lovely and lovelier thoughts is a tall order. And yet on the stage of Playwrights Horizon in the middle of 42nd Street, we watch adults born aloft, swinging, flying across the stage because they could finally find their "lovely thoughts." This play is well imagined and helmed by director Les Water's, who also steers the artistry of the Actor's Theatre of Louisville.

As the siblings argue in the Peter Pan dreamscape, including a masterful appearance by Peter Pan played by David Chandler, about who has grown up, who hasn't and why not, we all confront and imagine the places where we have missed being an adult, or might relish a tad more childishness. In the end we are all inching toward a certain ending, the alarm clock is ticking, and that either prompts buckling down or cutting loose. For some it is a mixture of flight, fancy and seriousness. Sarah Ruhl mixes an excellent concoction.

"For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday" runs through October 1 at Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street in New York City. For information or tickets, call 212-564-1235 or visit www.playwrightshorizons.org

           

New York Theater Reviews

This story is part of our special report titled New York Theater Reviews. Want to read more? Here's the full list.