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  • Heather Osteraa

“For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday” Is Not Your Grade School Pan

(Originally posted by September 3, 2019)

“We’re supposed to be the grown-ups now”

At one point in Sarah Ruhl’s “For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday,” a character observes that losing one’s parents means “There’s no one standing sentry between us and death.” Now, don’t let this startling sentiment fool you into thinking this play is all doom and gloom: Believe me when I tell you it is surprisingly uplifting, delightfully quirky, and even hopeful, even as it tackles two of everyone’s greatest fears: losing a parent and growing old.

As someone who has grown up around theatre folk, I have witnessed with my own eyes the phenomenon that a person can “stay young” while growing old. They say people who work in theatre have young souls (sometimes derogatorily labeled Peter Pan Syndrome, but those people are obviously jealous). But this phenomenon holds true. Maybe because we basically play pretend and tell stories for a living? Maybe it’s all the show tunes we listen to? Whatever the reason, growing old physically may be rife with unpleasantness: aches and pains, brain fog, spitefully sluggish metabolism, and a general loss of gravity in some areas, shall we say. But is managing to stay young inside the remedy for the omnipresent fear of aging? And when one loses a parent (I have not, Heaven willing), do our memories of them help keep their spirit alive in some way? These are the questions on this blogger’s mind as The Western Stage gears up to do Sarah Ruhl’s “For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday,” a tale both touching and surreal, where the refusal to grow up confronts the inevitability of growing old. In the wake of their father’s death, five siblings in their golden years reconnect with childhood dreams between family slice-of-life comedy and a Neverland fantasia.

Ghosts, pets, and arguments without resolutions surround the kitchen table free-for-all, complete with Chex party mix and many tumblers of Jameson, at which the five siblings mourn the loss of their father while questioning their own mortality. After a brief prologue in which the oldest sibling, Ann, appears to talk to the audience about playing Peter Pan at the Davenport Children’s Theater many years earlier, Ms. Ruhl throws us directly into a hospital vigil, as the siblings wait out their father’s final hours. Between the sounds of beeping monitors and television commercials, the characters reveal themselves through a series of ethical and philosophical squabbles. In the following kitchen table scene, the siblings reminisce about their parents, contentiously voice their political views (conservatives and liberals inhabit this family) and discuss ideas of faith. And their father is there too – if only they could see him – along with their long-dead family dog. Even though this ghost sometimes makes noises, often with comical results for the audience, Ms. Ruhl evokes a deeper notion of a spiritual world and how an afterlife is created when we think of those who have died. In Act III the siblings enter a Neverland of sorts, as aging adults with less-than-limber joints as well as childlike wonder.

Using Peter Pan as a metaphor for growing up, Sarah Ruhl concocts her own spin on this familiar theme with a mixture of family drama and surrealism. It’s a perfect example of what Ms. Ruhl, in her book “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write,” calls the Ovidian Form: Magic is everywhere, stories don’t have arcs, and nobody learns a lesson. The theater, she argues, should be more akin to poetry and pageantry than (as she sometimes despairs) legalistic argumentation. The work represents a deeply personal effort by the author of such acclaimed plays as The Clean House, Eurydice,and In the Next Room, (Or the Vibrator Play). The central character, Ann, is directly inspired by Ruhl’s mother, who played Peter Pan as a teenager while growing up in Davenport, Iowa. Around her mother’s 70th birthday, Ruhl was reflecting on aging and her mother’s fear of death, and thought that the metaphor of Peter Pan would be an interesting way to write a play for her. Ruhl’s writing also gives voice to a binding love between siblings that overcomes conflicting beliefs.

Cast list: Suzanne Sturn (Ann), Mindy Pedlar (Wendy), Ron Genauer (Michael), Carl Twisselman (Jim), Fred Herro (John), Tom Hepner (Father).

The Western Stage’s production is directed by Nina Capriola and Jeffrey T. Heyer; set design by David Parker; costume design by Sanja Manakoski; lighting design by Theodore Michael Dolas; sound design by Ari Murillo; and hair and makeup design by Maegan Roux.

From the Director (Jeffrey T. Heyer):

This play invokes current, powerful, personal issues for every member of the cast and directing team and we believe the same will hold true for audience members. Everyone has to deal with the essential problems of life which Sarah Ruhl explores. You may or may not feel that her play presents you with some sort of definitive answers, but speaking for the cast and directors, by the end of the first reading, we all felt better about asking the questions and facing what awaits around some unknown turn of life’s corners.

About the Playwright:

Sarah Ruhl (born January 24, 1974) is an American playwright, professor, and essayist. Among her most popular plays are Eurydice (2003), The Clean House (2004), and In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) (2009). She has been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a distinguished American playwright in mid-career. Two of her plays have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and she received a nomination for Tony Award for Best Play. Her book of essays on the theater and motherhood, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write (2015) was a Times Notable Book of the Year. She lives in Brooklyn with her family. Her most recent play, For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday (2017), premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. She currently serves on the faculty of the Yale School of Drama.

Ruhl writes in a poised, crystalline style about things that are irrational and invisible. Ruhl is a fabulist. Her plays celebrate what she calls “the pleasure of heightened things.” In them, fish walk and caper (Passion Play), stones talk and weep (Eurydice), a dog is a witness to and the narrator of a family tragedy (Dog Play), a woman turns into an almond (Melancholy Play). Ruhl’s characters occupy, she has said, “the real world and also a suspended state.” Ruhl began her career as a poet—her first book, Death in Another Country, a collection of verse, was published when she was twenty—and she sees her plays as “three-dimensional poems.”

Seriously, folks, read some of her other work listed above. She is inspiring!

So here’s the scoop: Sarah Ruhl is an extremely accomplished and brilliant playwright (who has even yet to peak in her career), who literally created”For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday” as a 70th Birthday gift for her mom who was struggling with the fear of dying (I’m not crying, you’re crying). The story deals with loss and grief and confronting one’s own mortality, which is kind of dark, yes, BUT these moments are surrounded by so many humorous and lovely ones (the bickering and shared memories between siblings is reminiscent of everyone’s family get-togethers and the Neverland segment with old people is a hoot). This play makes one question the real value of “youth” and instead places it on the familial relationships we get to build and treasure on our way to growing old.

For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday PERFORMS: Sept. 14 – Sept. 29, 2019 in the Studio Theater at the Hartnell College Performing Arts Center (Building K), 411 Central Ave., Salinas. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

This event is wheelchair accessible. Individuals requiring other accommodations should contact the Box Office at least one week prior to the event: (831)-755-6816

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Western Stage*

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