For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday
Maybe returning for the second time in one season to the hospital bed of a dying father or for the third time to a play involving pirates is pushing the envelope a bit too far. But how could there be any risk when the producing company is the perennially consistent-in-high-quality Berkeley Repertory Theatre? And what risk can there be when the chosen play is written by one of the nation’s and the Bay Area’s favorite playwrights, Sarah Ruhl (as witnessed recently in the highly touted Stage Kiss at San Francisco Playhouse and in past years on multiple other local stages, including Berkeley Rep’s, in such winners as Dead Man’s Cell Phone, The Oldest Boy, Eurydice, The Clean House, and In the Next Room (or a Vibrator Play))?
As it turns out, there is of course always risk in producing any new play, and just because the premiere is by the Pulitzer-Prize finalist, Tony-nominated Sarah Ruhl, the risk does not go away. Bottom line, the culprit for the lackluster, slow-moving, current Sarah Ruhl play on stage at Berkeley Rep is not the repetition of dying fathers/pirates subject matter, not a slip in the high production values the company always brings to bear, and certainly not the fine coast-to-coast cast assembled. The fault lies in the script itself which rarely moves past pedestrian dialogue and offers little in terms of engendering conversation about its focal, important subjects of aging, coming to terms with one’s own mortality, and the role of fantasy and dream in helping us through the journey of life.
Sarah Ruhl’s play is divided into three distinct acts, each dealing with an aspect of death and together, taking the family members on stage and those of us in the audience through the phases of dealing with the death of a loved one. In the first act, four siblings gather around the hospital bed of their comatose father, whose only sound is an occasional moan or cough. Twenty-five or so minutes are spent waiting for the poor guy to kick the bucket. Not much happens beyond a few shared memories (like the time a beloved dog died) or a group effort to complete the NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle. A couple of false passings with everyone gathered around the bed; the real event followed by tears, a prayer, and a spontaneous song; and all of a sudden – well not quite all of a sudden – one third of the play is complete, and we know very little more than we did in the beginning.
|Charles Shaw Robinson, Keith Reddin, Ron Crawford, Kathleen Chalfant & Ellen McLaughlin|
Act Two is a family wake that evening around the kitchen table, with grief lessened and conversation enhanced by a bottle of Jamieson’s Irish whiskey. More family stories and memories trickle out, especially focusing on oldest sister Ann’s early starring role as Peter Pan in their hometown of Davenport, Iowa (a nod in honor to a likened starring role of Sarah Ruhl’s own mother as a child). That leads to a round-robin discussion of when did each person realize (or not) that “I am now a grown-up.”
And, as often happens in the second acts of plays with families gathered in grief around the kitchen table (August Osage County being a prime example), topics the family has long known are not to be touched pop up as more toasts to departed members are drunk – topics like politics, religion, whom the parents loved most. And of course, things then degenerate into arguments. Unfortunately, it is all fairly ordinary sounding with predictable divides and disruptions (brothers are arch conservatives ... sisters, more liberal ... one Catholic still believes; someone is an Atheist; others, agnostic ... etc.). Tempers flair, old wombs open, and feelings are hurt; but none of it is all that interesting, revealing, or insightful. The dead father (David Chandler) does play a surprising role in the evening and engenders probably some of the best moments of the entire play; but not much is done in the script to make use of the device introduced, especially in aiding his children to have a more engaging, meaningful dialogue.
The third act begins with some hope. Siblings are now sleeping in their childhood beds for the evening, and Ann has found in an old trunk her Pan costume from a lifetime ago. That leads to a reenactment of the Peter Pan play, and there are moments when old farts with their aches and pains trying to be kids jumping on beds and fighting pirates is almost funny and endearing. But no matter how much they march, jostle, and even fly, the magic in the script is just not there. Frankly, it is still all rather ho-hum; and the message that on the stage of life, death and old age can disappear for a time when we allow our playful selves to take over in fun and fantasy, just is not all that clear or profound.
Kathleen Chalfant is Ann and former Peter Pan starlet who acts as our host and narrator of sorts. She appears a couple of times in front of the curtains to give us some background and to talk about her own life. She is charming with eyes and inner spirit that sparkle with some mixture of pixie-like mystery and mischievous spunk.
She and her siblings (Keith Reddin as teddy-bear-holding Michael, Charles Shaw Robinson as top-hatted John, Ellen McLaughlin as mother-like Wendy, and Ron Crawford as someone called George) do all they can to bring life into the dead-on-arrival script; and kudos goes to all for admirable life-saving attempts. Each brings glimpses of the accumulated skills their acting experiences have garnered them through many years of stage work in New York and beyond. But there are just not enough moments offered them to show their brilliance in this play, even under the able direction of someone like Les Waters, who is so proven in directing the plays of Sarah Ruhl and dozens of other playwrights on stages all over the country. Annie Smart’s excellent sets and Kristopher Castle’s costumes – both of which take particularly imaginative turns in Act Three – also cannot save the day.
In the end, not all experiments work, even when the best of the best are all involved. But the wonderment of live theatre and the excellence of an institution like Berkeley Repertory Theatre ensure that it is still a privilege to experience even the failures. If Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday is not the success (at least in this initial staging) either she or Berkeley Artistic Director Tony Taccone had imagined, then we can only bet with not much risk that their next joint venture will return to the triumphs they have co-produced in the past.
Rating: 2 E
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday will continue through July 3 on the Roda Theatre stage at Berkeley Repertory Company, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/boxoffice/ or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photos by Kevin Berne