By Philip Pearce
WATCHING MY WAY through Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday last Saturday, I wasn’t always certain what was happening on stage but I didn’t let that affect the steady pleasure I felt in watching it happen.
Then in the cold light of the morning after, I think I got the point and liked that too.
The central figure is based on Ruhl’s mother, an actress who played the lead in many a community theater version of Peter Pan back in the Mary Martin era. Ruhl dedicates the script to this tireless, charismatic trouper and the radiant and delightful Suzanne Sturn plays her to the hilt in the strange but fascinating production that has just opened in Western Stage’s Studio Theater.
Her name is Ann, which rhymes, of course, with Pan, and acting Barrie’s boy hero has been the central reality of Ann’s theatrical life, a fact that has spilled over into the lives of her four siblings, three of whom are either named after, or in some way actually are, characters from Barrie’s story, only about fifty years older.
The three men and their two sisters show up first around the deathbed of their father. They move on to toast his passing at an informal family wake, where they drink and argue politics and religion with a ferocious affection that’s sometimes like the Darlings at bedtime in England, sometimes like the lost boys of Neverland. “We’re orphans now!” one of them comments, a few moments after their father dies.
This one-for-all and all-for-one crew are played by some of this area’s most gifted actors. It’s been far too long since I’ve watched and admired Ron Genauer, here a forceful and funny sixty-something Michael. As his top-hatted and opinionated kid brother John, Fred Herro has never been better. Mindy Pedlar proves that Wendy can remain a loving, enchantingly bossy big sister even into her sixties. And there’s an added sibling named Jim, played with a lot of cheerful wit and determination by the versatile Carl Twisselman, who later suits up in hook and eyepatch as a comically fearsome Captain Hook when the setting changes to Neverland. That adventure turns out to be tough going for a family group with backaches and metal walkers.
The direction, shared by Nina Capriola and Jeffrey T Heyer, is masterful in the clarity with which it establishes each of the characters and their inter-relationships while also moving the action smoothly through some surprising shifts and permutations. Clearly, this is a script marked by its freewheeling variety and nonchalant willingness to change the mood and genre and attitude from solid realism to wild fantasy. The wake is peppered with informed references to real political figures and conflicts of the Clinton years. But when everyone decides to returns to Neverland are we in a dream sequence? An alternative universe? You decide.
This refusal to settle on a distinctive genre or a consistent style of storytelling are what drew fire from a number of critics of the original New York production. Personally, I think the hops, skips and jumps are what surprised and pleased me about this strange tale. And the contrasting sequences, for me, are a part of the play’s central theme: whatever magic Peter Pan weaves around it, you finally do have to grow up.
Well past their half century marks, this cluster of siblings has stuck together since childhood with the determination of a street gang. They have tribal songs and slogans for every occasion: “When the Saints,” the Beatles’ “Love, Love, Love.” At one point, they even join in a collective home team cheer of “I’ll never grow up! I‘ll Never Grow Up!”
But each of these three brothers has a successful medical career to manage, and each, like their sister Wendy, heads up a home and household elsewhere. There are spouses, children and grandkids who are waiting in the wings, but they only get a brief passing mention. What has always glued the five of them together is that alluring theatrical dream of big-sister-in-green-tights organizing a perpetual childhood. It’s a wistful and charming idea, but it can’t last forever.
So, at the boozy family wake after his funeral, their late father, played with a brooding and spooky deadpan authority by Tom Hepner, keeps showing up as awkwardly as Banquo’s ghost and trying to grab a place at the table and a part in the conversation. When Wendy floats the idea that Jesus and God are possibly just metaphors but Santa Claus is real, her dead father glides in wearing an ill-fitting Santa Claus hat. When Ann recalls the trauma of euthanizing a favorite family dog, father brings in the late lamented Chihuahua, played with dignify by Scamper, who lives with co-director Jeffrey T Heyer and his wife Nancy Bernhard. In a final bid for attention, father smashes a cup, which startles but fails to enlighten the drinkers. He’s asking for an end to that “Never Grow Up!” dream but as yet nobody is listening.
In the end, the boys and Wendy finally get the message and leave Ann for their real world responsibilities. She, in turn, comes to understand that, for her, growing up means abandoning Peter and the green tights and entering the new reality of death and the unexplored territory of life afterward.
Looking back across the story line, the family discussions at the bedside, the hijinks of the funeral wake and the disappointing return to Neverland become father’s object lessons in the futility of frolicking forever in the playground when you’re old and living in a world full of grown-up contradictions and terrors.
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday continues at the Studio Theater on the Hartnell campus through September 29th.