DEATH BY ANECDOTE
A playwright dredges up her past at her peril. As with Goodman Theatre’s current confusion King of the Yees, Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday is a very personal testament, a mirror held up by its author to its writer. Basically a (one) act of remembrance, this Chicago premiere from Shattered Globe Theatre confuses family albums with universal truth.
Creating a kind of dynastic talk show, Ruhl (author of The Clean House, Passion Play, Eurydice and In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play), regales us with a ton of often unprocessed memories about her mother Kathleen Ruhl (who intrepidly plays herself here under the nom de théâtre “Ann”) and her four aunts and uncles. We witness in scary detail the death of their father George (Doug McDade), who goes on to become a ghost at his own wake, then circulates among his progeny as they dig up heavily freighted recollections. We also learn that her mother got a Ph.D. in rhetoric and met Mary Martin. These revelations fail to transfigure the audience.
Smoothly directed by Jessica Thebus, this 75-minute stage souvenir delivers a few cunning snapshots among the rapid-fire remembrances. But they’re never enough to make this sometimes cloying stroll down Memory Lane engaging, let alone useful. 7oth Birthday simply lacks the open-hearted embrace of Our Town, let alone the driven hauntings in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
In scenes set during the Clinton era and before, we see these newly minted “orphans” (H.B. Ward, Ben Werling, Patrick Thornton, and Eileen Niccolai, plus a cute dog named Ophelia) watch home movies or argue over Catholic guilt, Reagan as a fraudster, Republican entitlement, death as a dead end or a detour, and the mother who left them long before.
Going back nearly 60 years, Ruhl’s main memory-mongering is reserved for a clumsy reenactment of her mother’s 1958 performance of Peter Pan at the Davenport Children’s Theatre. As if to enshrine that Eisenhower-Era visit to Neverland, these grownups, several of whom are medical professionals (for what that’s worth), throw themselves into a frenzied condensation of Barrie’s classic, performing under a footlit proscenium with toy props and illustrated by Michael Stanfill’s manic projections.
Never quite narcissistic but too specific to resonate, the less than world-shaking revelations are summed up by a final truism: Like Peter Pan, people in a play never grow up. To which the proper response, of course, is “Tell me something I don’t know.” As Walter Bagehot said about chronicling Britain’s royal family, “You must never shine daylight on magic.” Not on Peter Pan either.
Also like the recently opened King of the Yees, which feels like a two-hour Facebook status update, it’s hard to find a purpose in this play beyond Ruhl remembering her mother (literally, on this stage) because, well, she’s her mother. But she never becomes ours—and the reason is in the title. James Barrie never reduced Peter Pan (interestingly, an eternal boy played by at least three women—Maude Adams, Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby) to a gender or a 70th birthday. And not just because “he” never grew up.
photos by Michael Brosilow
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday
Shattered Globe Theatre
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on to May 20, 2017
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit Theater Wit
for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago