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September 18, 2017
Review: For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday
Kathleen Chalfant, Daniel Jenkins, Keith Reddin & Lisa Emery. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Take a new play by two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony Award nominee Sarah Ruhl, add a cast of seasoned New York actors including the great Kathleen Chalfant, let innovative theater director and Obie Award winner Les Waters mix it all up, and you have a triple whammy of terrific theater at Playwrights Horizons in their 2017-2018 season opener, For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday.  According to Ms. Ruhl, who used her own family experiences in the creation of this play, writing from a place of love was of utmost importance influencing her to choose the three part dramatic structure of Japanese Noh drama (with modifications) rather than a play that pivots around a secret being revealed -- what she calls contemporary Midwestern Noh drama.

For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday is set in Davenport, Iowa in the 1990s.  Ms. Ruhl’s mother actually played Peter Pan as a teenager in Davenport and Ms. Ruhl bookends the play with sweet recollections of that event with Ms. Chalfant as Ann, a composite stand-in for Ms. Ruhl’s mother.  In the first main scene, five aging siblings camp out in a hospital room as they grapple with their elderly father’s death and ultimately their own mortality.  Ms. Ruhl captures both the profound and mundane in family conversations as they talk football, figure out a crossword puzzle or stand in vigil around the hospital bed where monitors beep and their father rasps out his last breaths.

The middle scene is a whiskey infused wake at the childhood home filled with telling bad jokes, reminiscing about growing up Catholic, and some intense political arguments, some of the brothers spouting conservative views juxtaposed against the sisters’ liberal leanings.  Ultimately the banter turns towards growing up, growing old and dying with each person holding wildly different views.  Ann quips, "Of course I’m afraid of dying.  It’s organized my entire life," to which youngest sister Wendy, an achingly vulnerable Lisa Emery, replies, "I think it’s like changing clothes.  I think the moment will be beautiful.  Liberating." Brother Michael pipes in with his mantra: "Immortality through immaturity." Throughout this scene, the amiable ghost of their father, played with sweet simplicity by Ron Crawford, wanders in and out living little moments of life.

And then in the third scene, Ms. Ruhl transports the audience to the nursery of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and ultimately on to Neverland!  Each of the siblings embodies one of the characters in Peter Pan: Wendy, Peter, John, Michael, Captain Hook and even Nana the dog. (Yes, there is a dog in this show.) Ms. Ruhl has woven the beloved fairytale and the searching for meaning of five grown-up brothers and sisters into a marvelous conclusion, which includes fights and flying and infuses the audience with happiness.

Giving us a gift with her rendition of Peter Pan/Ann, Ms. Chalfant is captivating; her hopeful performance sprinkles of fairy dust to all.  In addition to Ms. Chalfant, Ms. Emery and Mr. Crawford, the cast includes Keith Reddin, a delightful Michael and adorable in his pajamas in the third scene, the charming Daniel Jenkins as John/Jim, the outspoken conservative in the family, and the wonderful David Chandler as a scene stealing hammy Captain Hook.  Watching this exquisite ensemble of older actors at work, I longed for more playwrights to write roles for each of them.

With poignancy and touches of alchemy, Mr. Waters’ direction stretched theatrical boundaries beautifully, shaping moments of grief, tenderness and joy along with a skillful use of music.  A longtime collaborator with Ms. Ruhl, Mr. Waters, who is the Artistic Director at Actors Theater of Louisville, commissioned For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday for the 2016 Humana Festival.  His direction, Ms. Ruhl’s play and a phenomenal cast make us want to "stay in the theater a little longer/where you don’t have to grow up."

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Off to Neverland: An Interview With Director Les Waters

By Emily Gawlak

Though director and educator Les Waters hails from across the pond, he’s made quite a splash in the American theatre scene in the past several decades, bouncing from the west coast — where he served as head of the M.F.A. directing program at UC San Diego and the associate artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre — to the south, where he’s spent half a decade as the artistic director of the Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky. During his tenure in Louisville, Waters has reasserted the importance of the Actors Theatre’s annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, championing (and stepping in as director for) some of the preeminent playwrights working today. This season, not far on the heels of Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, which Waters brought from Humana to Playwrights Horizons in 2015, he returns to Playwrights with another Humana-born project, Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday. His fifth collaboration with Ruhl, For Peter Pan is a cerebral yet sentimental piece that flirts with whimsy as it reckons with the reality of growing old. Kathleen Chalfant leads a stellar cast as Annie, the eldest of five siblings who reunite at their father’s death bed to drink …Read more

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Written by: Navida Stein
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