Sarah Ruhl, the Chicago-bred playwright whose work has garnered both international acclaim and a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship during the course of the past 15 years, is best known for her quirky, gently surreal takes on everything from Greek myth and the nature of melancholy, to female sexuality and the complications of onstage kissing.
‘For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday’
When: Through May 20
Where: Shattered Globe Theatre at Stage 773, 1229 W. Belmont
Run time: 85 minutes, with no intermission
“For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” — produced at the Theatre of Louisville Humana Festival and Berkeley Repertory Theatre last year, and now receiving its Chicago debut by Shattered Globe Theatre — marks something of a departure. It is a rueful, heartfelt, mostly naturalistic little drama about how we live, how we die and how we mourn those we love. And it is told through one particular episode in the life of a close-knit but argumentative Midwestern family whose allegiance to Catholicism is as varied as its allegiance to certain political and social beliefs.
Less polished and more traditional than Ruhl’s earlier works, the play feels a little more predictable and rougher around the edges than usual. The same is true of the production itself, which has been directed by Jessica Thebus and is being performed by a group of actors whose work is generally far more incisive. Unquestionably the play’s heart is in the right place, but both the script and its realization feel somewhat undercooked at this point.
It is no small irony that the most expertly shaped performance here is by Doug McDade, the workaholic nonangenarian patriarch and pediatrician who takes his last breath in a hospital bed in the first scene, but then returns as a mostly silent ghost at various moments throughout the remainder of the play. Everything from McDade’s shuffle to his facial expressions are spot-on and touchingly recognizable (with the stirring of a glass of Metamucil adding a whimsical touch to things that should not be divulged here).
Gathered around George’s deathbed, and then around a wooden kitchen table where they hold an informal wake fueled by Jameson’s (and water) are George’s five children, who argue about everything from burial versus cremation and the nature of the afterlife, to the workings (and malfunctions) of the free market economy. All of them are well into middle age, but the oldest, Ann (Kathleen Ruhl, the playwright’s real-life mother, now 74, whose daughter wrote the play in honor of the birthday noted in the title), is already beyond that category. Yet her youthful spirit still flies (tentatively) on her memories of the time when, at age 13, she played “Peter Pan” in a big downtown theater in Davenport, Iowa, and also happened to meet Broadway veteran Mary Martin, the most famous Peter Pan of them all.
Two of the three brothers in the family — John (H. B. Ward), Jim (Ben Werling) and Michael (Patrick Thornton) — are doctors, and much like their self-made, Depression-era dad, some are fairly conservative in their thinking. (While set during the Clinton era, the play’s arguments sound very much of this moment.) Ann, already a widow, seems to fly beyond politics while her considerably younger sister, Wendy (Eileen Nicolai), has definite ideas about things — along with some End Days notions — but finds all the arguing unfit for the circumstances. (With the death of their father, the siblings, it should be noted, have become “orphans,” as their mother died some years earlier. And in a sense they feel a bit like “the lost boys” of Peter Pan’s Neverland.)
The show’s final scene is set in motion when the siblings open an old trunk filled with “Peter Pan” costumes and roughly improvise a bit of the story. There is no neat conclusion to any of this, but clearly the abiding message is that while none of us will fly forever, making a worthwhile contribution to society along the way is important, and family ties, as imperfect as they might be, can help keep us aloft.