Peter Pan’s classic refrain, “I won’t grow up!” takes on a more poignant, if not darker, meaning in Sarah Ruhl’s play “For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday.”
Here, to grow up means to die. And, as the main character Ann (Kathleen Chalfant) posits, you don’t have to die if you don’t grow up.
In her script, Ruhl expertly weaves heavy topics — fear of death, family relations, losing loved ones, aging — with elements of childhood whimsy to touching effect.
The production begins with Chalfant facing the audience, her back to a drawn curtain, reminiscing about how she had played Peter Pan in her local Iowa community theater as a girl. Her father (Ron Crawford), who was the town doctor, had to miss a lot of his children’s activities since he was always on call.
“But he never missed me playing Peter Pan,” she says.
From this point, Ruhl divides the play into three sections. In the first, we’re in the hospital with Ann and her four siblings — all named after the Darling children from J.M. Barrie’s play — as their father dies.
From there, we’re transported to their father’s home as the siblings hold a wake of sorts (complete with lots of Jameson), during which they discuss their faith in an afterlife.
That brings us to Neverland — or a version of it. After Ann finds and dons her old Peter Pan costume, we — along with all the siblings– are transported to the fanciful place.
Yet where Peter declares in the original, “I’m youth, I’m joy!” the siblings here possess neither of these attributes. They are arthritic, plagued with gout and diabetes, and mourn the loss of all who have recently died as they traverse through the fantasy world.
Throughout Ruhl’s script and in the performance, the actors echo the original play. But we’ll leave it there so we don’t spoil this version’s touching ending.
Some elements, however, were cumbersome.
Immediately following the death of Ann’s father, the house lights came on and members of the Butler Traditional High School Marching Band snaked through the aisles for a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” While intended to provide some levity, the move ultimately took away from the momentum that had been so deftly developed.
That was a minor snag in a play that was otherwise directed and acted so well.
This isn’t the first time director (and Actors Theatre artistic director) Les Waters has worked with Ruhl’s material. He made his Broadway debut in 2009 with her play “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).”
His knack for the darkly fanciful — which was brilliantly displayed in last year’s Humana production of “The Glory of the World” — elevates Ruhl’s script. Add in the tenderly performed roles of the siblings (Scott Jaeck, Keith Reddin, David Chandler and Lisa Emery — all of whom were standouts), and “For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday” will be a Humana play with a reach far past Actors Theatre.
For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Les Waters
Humana Fest performances run through April 10. More information is here.