Theater Review by Jerald Raymond Pierce
2.5 out of 4
This was actually my second time seeing this new Sarah Ruhl play. The first time being in Louisville during Actors Theatre’s Humana Festival. Two vastly different productions. Stage limitations completely redefined the technical aspects of the show, Ruhl’s mother was now taking the lead, and there wasn’t a high school marching band to tromp through the aisles playing “When the Saints Come Marching In” (I admit, I missed that part). But the most interesting thing about this Chicago premiere wasn’t the differences; it was how, despite a whole renovation, a lot of my thoughts on the show stayed exactly the same.
The story is broken into three sections: Part one shows a family (five siblings) in a hospice room as their father nears the end of his life; Part two has them back home reminiscing on their childhood, drinking to the memory of their father; Part three is in Neverland.
Part one didn’t land. Perhaps it’s because it felt like the actors stumbled a bit on lines and that will of course improve over the course of the show, but the emotional impact of what is actually happening (watching their father die) wasn’t there. It didn’t feel like a family. Much of that first part was choppy and stilted and didn’t feel like anyone was connected to the truth of the situation. Maybe there was hesitation from the actors or from director Jessica Thebus to let the first part be devastating. Maybe there was the thought that if you toss the audience in this well of despair, you won’t be able to pull them out for the light-hearted parts later. But Ruhl wrote such a funny, clever, and thoughtful play that there needs to be the trust to let the first part go as deep and dark as it needs to. That didn’t happen here.
Oddly enough, part two was actually the one I had the most issue with (despite all of the above). I have to put a lot of the onus on Thebus’ direction. To be fair, Ruhl creates a tough task by bringing the father on stage as a presence these aging adults can’t see and then asks him to interact with the environment and even have a seat to eat. It’s tough. But there were ways for Thebus to craft the moments better. The most egregious being when the children ask for a “sign” from their father and he, seemingly subconsciously as he eats at the table, knocks a tin lid to the ground. Great—except that he had moved that tin lid multiple times before and no one noticed. This is on top of actors giving up seats to go stand awkwardly somewhere else without motivation so the father can sit. All of that being said, I had similar questions the first time I saw this play. The idea that their father is still with them, even in death, is beautiful, but the concept struggles to be put on stage.
Ruhl’s play does a great job in letting these five siblings talk out their fears and concerns about death now that they are, essentially, next in line to die. It’s an unsettling conversation. It’s meant to be dark and uneasy until the audience sees them rebel against the idea of death the way only Peter Pan could: by saying they’ll never grow up. But, of course, real life isn’t like the fairy tales and they are forced to accept the fact that their adult lives are too important to them now to leave behind. It’s a truly beautiful play, but this production misses the depth by being too afraid to wade all the way into the water.
Shattered Globe Theatre will concludes its 2016-17 Season with the Chicago premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s FOR PETER PAN ON HER 70th BIRTHDAY. Directed by Jessica Thebus, FOR PETER PAN ON HER 70th BIRTHDAY will play April 6 – May 20, 2017 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago. Tickets are currently available at www.theaterwit.org, in person at the Theater Wit Box Office or by calling (773) 975-8150. More information is also available at www.theatreinchicago.com.
Jerald Raymond Pierce is a journalist, stage manager, actor, director, and playwright in the Chicago area with an MA in Arts Journalism from Syracuse University and a BFA in Acting from Ohio University. He also is a contributor to American Theatre magazine and an editor for ShowSnob.com. When he’s not spending unnecessary amounts of money on sports tickets, theatre tickets, and random travels, he’s probably ranting about Doctor Who, time travel, and the general merits of current television and movie writers.