Sarah Ruhl is one of America’s greatest and most prolific playwrights. Thanks to the Pear Theatre you can see one of her very best: “For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday,” running now through March 3rd. Ruhl’s plays are unique, relevant, emotional, entertaining and personal. She wrote this play as a birthday present for her mother, Kathleen, who was turning 70. Kathleen Ruhl had played the part of Peter Pan at a children’s theatre when she was young and was lucky enough to have met Mary Martin, the Peter Pan of legend. In “For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday” Sarah Ruhl used the themes within “Peter Pan” to address the angst of not just growing up, but aging, facing death, and questioning long held beliefs. It might have started as a very personal tribute to her mother, but it certainly resonated with me, and I believe with everyone in the theatre. At times I felt a part of the scene on stage, caught up in the dialogue and thinking of what I would say to the characters on stage. This is not a play for a specific era in our society. This is a play that addresses human frailties and strengths, family relationships, and religious and political differences that have been and will be relevant for as long as mankind inhabits this planet.
The play is 90 minutes long, with three scenes and no intermission. The six-member cast is comprised of Ann, who is meant to be a stand-in for Kathleen Ruhl, now 70, her three brothers, one sister, and her father. Dialogue between the siblings drives the three scenes, and it is so riveting that you wish each scene would go longer so you could see how discussions ended. The character development here is thorough and well defined. Perhaps that is due to the script. But I think the six actors cast by the Pear Theatre deserve much of the credit.
The play opens with Ann alone on stage telling the audience about her experiences in the role of Peter Pan and how wonderful that was. She laments growing up, getting older and having to face death, specifically the death of her father right now. As the curtain rises, she then walks into a hospital room and is surrounded by her four siblings who are by their father’s side as death approaches. The dialogue in this room had just the right amount of awkwardness, emotion, logic, and irrational love to be about as real as any dialogue I have seen on stage. I don’t want to put any spoilers in this article, but the similarities and differences between Eastern and Western religious beliefs were a core component to this scene and those that followed. A family’s desperate need to believe in something, the children’s need to form their own opinions and be praised for that and other accomplishments, as well as sibling rivalry over careers and value in a parent’s eyes brought strong emotions to the forefront on stage as well as within everyone in the audience.
In the second scene the siblings are reminiscing around a dinner table in the family home. Their father, invisible to them, watches their conversation and does very normal activities on stage. His presence is there for us literally and for the siblings figuratively. Depending upon your beliefs, you decide why he is there. Conversations again control the stage, and we learn more about the backgrounds of the siblings and how they have grown apart as adults. The problems associated with growing up, and especially with aging become central to this family discussion, and you feel very much a part of the it. Sometimes, the dialogue is very funny. At times it is stilted, and at times it is confrontational. These siblings are grappling with the question: how can we as humans make facing the problems of adulthood, aging and death easier to handle? Unlike us, they get to go back to Neverland to work out these issues. Thus, we transition to scene 3.
In the final scene, the siblings are transported to Neverland from their bedroom at home, as children, yet they know they are adults. They experience the exhilaration of youth again and the freedom of flying to a place with no concerns and responsibilities. There is only fairy dust and fun. This transition helps them realize the life they have isn’t so bad. They know they are grown-ups with responsibilities and infirmities, but with that status comes great joy in family and careers. They happily leave Neverland for reality. Ann has one final moment with her father that brought tears to my eyes. Ann realizes she has always had the praise and love from her father that she desired. To end this play full of questions about family, religion, politics, relationships, and death with the obvious love between Ann and her father was genius. It’s nice to think that even though a play is fictional, love still triumphs.
An intimate play in an intimate theatre made for a winning combination. With sets that put the actors close to the audience, we were immersed in the dialogue as though we could add our thoughts to theirs. None of the facial expressions, voice inflexions, and small gestures were missed. The size of the theatre allowed them to use symbolism in the final scene that added to the theme. Because a flying apparatus wasn’t used in their flight to Neverland, they used what had been their father’s hospital bed in scene 1 to transport themselves to that magical place. For me, it was another sign that they were facing death with positive attitudes and looking at it as a transition, not an ending.
I cannot give enough credit to the six actors and the director of this play. It would take many pages to list the credits of these six performers. All of that experience was evident in this play, because the entire show rests on the ability of these six actors to make us a part of their “real” family going through the issues of sibling rivalry, adulthood responsibilities, and impending death. The casting was spot on. By the third scene, the audience knew what to expect from each of the characters, and these actors never disappointed us. Monica Cappuccini was outstanding as Ann, who you could believe played Peter Pan as a young actress. Her interactions with her father as well as each sibling were exactly how you would expect them to be given this character’s beliefs, fears, and upbringing. Similarly, Bill Davidovich, Ronald Feichtmeir, Tannis Hanson, and John Mannion, as Ann’s siblings interacted with a chemistry that you cannot fake. Ray Renati, who played Ann’s father, is one of the founders of the Pear Theatre, and his talent is well suited to the stage. He has also directed award winning shows at the Pear.
We do not get to see the director of the play on stage, but Austin Edgington needs to be mentioned for his direction of these six very seasoned actors. With very little movement, there was a lot going on in this play and a lot of emotion that had to be portrayed. Edgington is an actor, director, and writer, whose work spans radio, stage, and screen. Louis Stone-Collonge, the set designer, rose to a very challenging task of designing the stage for three very different scenes, including Neverland in which the stage was transformed into a fantasy of the siblings’ minds. Everyone involved in this play made it appear to us that we were just eavesdropping on a real family. Good theater can make that happen.
The Pear Theatre will have performances of this show until March 3rd. There are other offerings coming up at the Pear Theatre as well including The Pear Pressure Cabaret. To learn more about the current play, the cast, and how to get tickets, and the other events at the Pear, go to their website, thepear.org