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A CurtainUp Review
For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday

Oh. We're old, aren't we? We're getting too old to fly?— John
One of my best friends just died.— Michael
Me too.— Wendy
And I had to treat him.— Michael
They're all getting old and dying. It's awful.— John No! Keep a positive attitude. We'll walk to Neverland. Except my foot is killing me. Could someone grab me a cane? How far a walk is Neverland?
— Ann concludes her recollections of the above interchanges evoked by a trunk filled with paraphernalia from her youthful acting days with "I stayed in the theater for a little while longer. Where you don't have to grow up."
Kathleen Chalfant (Photo: Joan Marcus)
For Sarah Ruhl to write a play for her mother was indeed a lovely gift idea — especially so since her mother, who grew up playing Peter Pan at a community theater and who's still an actress had a chance to play herself in a Chicago production. However, if Ruhl weren't a much acclaimed playwright whose work has been widely produced by prestigious companies, it's unlikely that this birthday gift would have wended its way from the Humana Festival to the current production at Playwrights Horizons' Main Stage and attracted the always luminous Kathleen Chalfant to star in it.

It's certainly typical of Ruhl's ever active imagination to link her own extended family with J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan — the one character we've all come to associate with escaping growing up and, with it, life's inevitable finale. The problem is that despite its assets— a committed cast headed by Ms. Chalfant, direction by her frequent collaborator Les Waters and solid production values— this one act meditation on aging and dying never escapes feeling like watching someone else's home movies.

With the characters'names matching those of J.M. Barrie's Darling children, the fantastical finale is totally predictable. Unfortunately, even though these middle aged faux-Darlings do take flight, theatrically speaking this basically plotless piece never really soars to the level of Ruhl's better work.

The playwright has divided her single act into three scenes which she calls "moves" in deference to the way each segment moves her characters from facing their father's death, to grieving for him with Irish Wake style remembrances and, finally, their Peter-Pan-ish grappling with the Grim Reaper.

Losing one's parents is certainly a universal marker in everyone's life, so it's easy to identify with the tension of the five siblings in the hospital room where their cancer stricken father is dying. All five actors touchingly and very authentically convey their helpless vigil at their father's bedside. But we're in a theater so the excruciatingly slow pace of this scene seems excessively realistic.

This being an Irish-American family, a Wake is bound to follow. This one takes us to the family home's breakfast room. Ruhl has penned some smart dialogue and, since these are all bright, opinionated professionals, it's natural that politics will be part of the conversation. But with all that's happening these days, the Clinton era setting makes these political discussions feel more than a little dated.

The father (Ron Crawford) also leaves that hospital room to hover over the wake as a ghostly presence. The best thing about this is that he's occasionally joined by one of master animal trainer William Bertoni's rescue dogs — and yes, he does morph into Nana, when the mourners morph into Wendy Darling (Lisa Emery), the Darling Boys Jim and Michael (David Chandler and Keith Reddin), and the villainous Captain Hook (Daniel Jenkins).

While that final re-creation of the famous Barrie bedroom scene is more lively and fun than what went on before, the flying is decidedly low key and limited — good enough as a birthday present, but not the strong play these fine actors deserve.

Links to Curtainup reviews of other plays by Sarah Ruhl
Ms. Ruhl's last and most entertaining play and also ran at Playwright Horizon was Stage Kiss
Dead Man's Cell Phone - another Playwrights Horizon production
Clean House one of Ruhl's most produced and best plays
In the Next Room, vibrator play
Scenes From Court Life or the whipping boy and his prince
How to Transcenda Happy Marriage
Dear Elizabeth
Oldest Boy
Passion Play
Eurydce 3 sisters -Chekhov adaptation
Orlando - Virginia Wolf novel adaptation

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For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday by Sarah Ruhl
Directed By Les Waters
Cast: Kathleen Chalfant (Ann), David Chandler (Jim), Ron Crawford (The Father), Lisa Emery (Wendy), Daniel Jenkins (John), Keith Reddin (Mihael), Macy (A dog)
Scenic design by David Zinn
Costume design by Kristopher Castle
Lighting design by Matt Frey
Sound design by Charles Coes and Bray Poor
. Animals by William Berloni
Theatrical Animals and Flying Effects by ZFX,Inc.
Stage Manager: Amanda Spooner
Running Time: 90 minutes
Playwrights Horizon,416 West 42nd Street
From 8/18/17; opening 9/13/17; closing 10/01/17. Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 2 & 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 & 7PM.

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