Theater Review: ‘For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday’

Whimsy and memory in a charming story
September 19, 2017 Updated: September 23, 2017

NEW YORK—With “For Peter Pan on Her 70th birthday,” playwright Sarah Ruhl has fashioned a paean to her mother, who once played Peter Pan many years ago in a community theater in Davenport, Iowa. Fashioned out of love, remembrance, and Ruhl’s imagination, the play unfolds to tell us a story about family and mortality.

In a prologue, Ann (Kathleen Chalfant) steps in front of the curtain to apprise the audience of what they’ll be seeing. She mentions that when she originally played Peter, she briefly met Mary Martin, the original star of the famed Broadway production, as the road tour passed through Davenport. This was obviously a high point in Ann’s life. She is chatty and informal, setting the tone for what will follow.

When the curtains part, we see a hospital room, with five adult siblings at their father’s bedside, waiting for his imminent death: Ann; John, a teacher (Daniel Jenkins); Michael, a surgeon (Keith Reddin); Jim, an internist (David Chandler); and Wendy, a wife and mother (Lisa Emery).

Kathleen Chalfant as Ann, who played Peter Pan when she was a girl, is now dealing with her father's death. (Joan Marcus)
Kathleen Chalfant as Ann, who played Peter Pan when she was a girl, is now dealing with her father’s death. (Joan Marcus)

Their small talk is interspersed with intense attention to their father’s (Ron Crawford) occasional gasps. They discuss the process of dying. They try to nap. When the man dies, he gets out of bed and exits—unseen by the siblings.

At the wake, the siblings enjoy the calming effects of a bottle of whiskey. Talk centers on telling jokes (not too successfully) and talking politics (JFK and Nixon, at the time). More seriously, they discuss what it is to be a grownup, and each shares his or her thoughts on dying—some courageous, some fearful. They are joined at the table by the ghost of their father.

Then, we are in Neverland. Ann has quick-changed into Peter Pan’s costume, and occasionally crows confidently. The others are wearing night clothes. When Peter loses his shadow, Wendy skillfully sews it back on again. When the group starts crying, Peter simply throws fairy dust on them.

Everything is going along well until an appearance by the dreaded Captain Hook (Chandler in a marvelous costume, playing the villain to the hilt). Ann as Peter flies through the air, with Chalfant holding classic balletic poses midair. And, eventually all of the siblings fly, ending the play on an upbeat, enthusiastic note.

Director Les Waters has done a terrific job of coordinating all the elements, which include a fine set by David Zinn and costumes by Kristopher Castle.

(L–R) Lisa Emery, Keith Reddin, David Chandler, Kathleen Chalfant, and Daniel Jenkins play siblings at the wake after their father's death. (Joan Marcus)
(L–R) Lisa Emery, Keith Reddin, David Chandler, Kathleen Chalfant, and Daniel Jenkins play siblings at the wake after their father’s death. (Joan Marcus)

The mix of reality and fantasy is ultimately charming and moving. What may have seemed light becomes layered with thoughts of mortality and questions of how one is to live one’s life: How can one be useful? Is one person more important than another?

Much like Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” what happened in a small city in the United States years ago can connect us with a larger picture.

‘For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday’
Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St.
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or PlaywrightsHorizons.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Oct. 1

Diana Barth writes for various theatrical publications, including the New Millennium. She may be contacted at diabarth99@gmail.com