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Playwright Sarah Ruhl gifts her mom with a ‘Birthday’ production

Eileen Niccolai (from left), Kathleen Ruhl, Doug McDade and Ben Werling in Shattered Globe Theatre's Chicago premiere of "For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday," written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Jessica Thebus. | Photo by Joe Martinez Jr.

A unique mother/daughter dynamic comes together in Sarah Ruhl’s new play “For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday.” For some time, the playwright had wanted to write a play as a gift to her mother Kathleen, an actress who has worked for decades on Chicago stages.

‘For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday’

When: April 6-May 20

Where: Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont

Tickets: $35

Info: theaterwit.org

After debuting last year at the Actors Theatre of Louisville Humana Festival followed by a run at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the play is now making its Chicago debut at Shattered Globe Theatre with Kathleen featured in the cast.

Ruhl dug deep into her family for inspiration beginning with her mother who she says was “having complicated feelings about turning 70.”

Kathleen Ruhl flying high as the title character in a long ago community theater production of “Peter Pan.” | SUPPLIED PHOTO
Kathleen Ruhl flying high as the title character in a long ago community theater production of “Peter Pan.” | SUPPLIED PHOTO

“So I decided to write a play about aging and also Peter Pan,” Ruhl says. “In high school my mother had played Peter Pan in community theater and I always very much associated her with that iconography.”

Her mother readily admits that turning 70 (she’s now 74) was a benchmark for her: “Somehow it was different. I think Sarah sensed that I was feeling extremely mortal and wanted to console me somehow.”

“For Peter Pan On her 70th Birthday” unfolds in three acts. In the first, five siblings gather in their dying father’s hospital room, followed by their own personal alcohol-fueled wake in the family kitchen after his death. The final act transforms the cast into the dream world of the Peter Pan story.

“I think it’s one of Sarah’s most intimate and emotional plays,” says director Jessica Thebus, who has helmed many of Ruhl’s plays. “It’s about family connections and grief and fear and growing up and growing old. Things that everyone can relate to.”

The siblings in the play mirror Kathleen and her three brothers and sister but Ruhl emphasizes that the characters she’s created are “very much composites and don’t represent actual people.” But to create these characters she did ask her mother, aunt and uncles to answer a list of questions including their thoughts on growing up, the afterlife, fear of dying, prayer, Santa Claus and the state of our country.

Kathleen plays Ann, the eldest sibling and Peter Pan character, with Eileen Niccolai, Ben Werling, Patrick Thornton and HB Ward as her siblings and Doug McDade, as their father.

Sarah Ruhl | SUPPLIED PHOTO
Sarah Ruhl | SUPPLIED PHOTO

Ruhl says she was in part inspired by fellow playwright Quiara Hudes who had written a triptych of plays (it includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water By the Spoonful”) about her own family and had interviewed them extensively. Ruhl asked her about the process.

“I found my conversations with Quiara really inspiring,” Ruhl recalls. “I really don’t write plays that have living history in them so I realized to do an authentic job I had to interview the people with the history.”

The stage siblings have a habit, one found in many large families, of talking over each other. In an author’s note, Ruhl refers to this as “musicality of speech.”

“I associate this with my childhood and being in this family and listening to all this talk,” she says. “When I sat down to write the first draft, I actually wrote it more as a hive mind of voices and less as individual characters. I just let them talk. Later I created individual characters for each of them.”

Ruhl, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters, grew up in Wilmette and attended the Piven Theatre Workshop. “I started out there as an actor believe it or not,” she says laughing. She credits her mother for giving her an early initiation into theater.

“At first, I never wanted to be a playwright. I just wanted to write fiction and poetry,” Ruhl says. “But when I started writing plays it just felt so natural because I had been around it my whole life.”

Kathleen, a retired English teacher, has never acted in one of her daughter’s plays. “But I do give her notes on spelling, grammar and punctuation,” she says with a laugh.

While Ruhl’s play was written with Peter Pan actually flying in the final scene, it won’t happen in this production as it did in earlier versions because the theater isn’t rigged for it. So unlike that production many years ago, Kathleen, who plays Peter once again in that final scene, won’t be leaving the ground.

“I had no fear of flying back then,” Kathleen says laughing. “But it’s probably best not to risk that now. I know Jessica and Sarah have talked a lot about how to handle the final scene. I’m sure they have come up with a wonderful way to handle it.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.