Adulthood may be difficult to grasp for some, but it is especially hard for Kathleen Chalfant’s Ann, who, although the oldest of her siblings, has only begun to grasp the reality of dying—a fate everyone shares, no matter how long of a life someone has lived.
In the unfortunately tepid For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday by Sarah Ruhl, five siblings come together to gather around their dying father and reflect on the end of adulthood. No one here is struggling with dark secrets or unusual, convoluted drama, with Ruhl fully realizing her goal of writing a tragicomedy about a family without the need for conflict within the family.
There are arguments, but they feel natural and funny to any outside observer who relishes in the idea that every family is unhappy on its own way. The arguments range from politics to single mother issues to work, not daggers in the back or forbidden loves.
Ruhl’s writing typically deals with the strangeness of things that, whether inevitable or poorly thought out, weed themselves into the garden of everyday life. Her plays have run gamut of mythological portrayals of grief, such as in Eurydice, to the ridiculousness of sexual norms, found in In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).
Her work puts an absurd twist on the things one may not really consider in the context of their lives as it is so woven into the fabric of the normal.
In her artist’s note, Ruhl states that the play embodies two forms, one as a Midwestern take on Japanese Noh drama—classical Japanese musical dramas performed since the 14th century—and another as a “gift play” to her mother, who played Peter Pan in her local community theater. The gift that Ruhl provides is a rough sketch of the three-act Noh drama, following the meeting, recognition and embrace of the spirit that weaves itself through the story.
One sees this spirit in the form of the Father, played by Ron Crawford, who continues to haunt his old home by simply going about his routine, while joined by his childhood dog. Crawford leads Ann to a trunk containing her old Peter Pan costume, which is followed by a final trip through Neverland, unfortunately bound by the realities of growing up.
They cannot fly to Neverland, as the former children remember that they have lives to return to. Even Ann must face the truth that Peter Pan does eventually put his feet on the ground.
Les Water’s whimsy-laden, fantastical direction gives the performances and the look of the show a storybook aura, with light design from Matt Frey, effortlessly taking us from the clinical feel of a hospital room to the rapturous joy of Neverland. However, the show is unfortunately bound by its 90-minute runtime, with certain beats coming so quickly that they feel like guideposts to the end rather than moments to consider.
Some of the jokes are a little too dated and fall flat on occasion, while some of the more serious implications of coming so close to the finish line of adulthood feel forced. For a writer of Ruhl’s caliber, the best gift she could have given was room for the story to breathe.