This past weekend Berkeley Rep opened For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, a play written by frequent collaborators, playwright Sarah Ruhl and director Les Waters. The play examines the world of five siblings, three of whom are named John, Michael and Wendy, as they are gathered around their dying father in a hospital room and the events that follow after his death. And although the play strives for a comedic lightness and is blessed with a long and delightful dream fantasy for its closing scene, it can be called a meditation on aging and dying.
The play opens with a prologue spoken by the main character Ann, played by Bay Area–born actress Kathleen Chalfant. Ann sets us down in her childhood when she and her family lived in Davenport, Iowa. Her fond memory of that time is when she played Peter Pan in the school play. Flying seems to have been her favorite thing, something she lived in joy with even off stage and as an adult: “I was never afraid to fly.”
Chalfant is an engaging and warm actor. We’re with her all the way during her monologue, which is graced with humor and ironically tinged nostalgia.
When the curtain opens on the first scene, we are in the hospital room with five adult children fussing over their father and distractedly waiting for his inevitable death. Irritations are small but persistent. Anxieties break out briefly as their dying father groans. Two of the sons are doctors, and one of them, middle son Jim (David Chandler), bleakly assures his siblings that Dad isn’t leaving the room alive. Amid a flurry of gasps and beeping monitors Dad does at last die, and we find ourselves in the next scene, at home in a now empty house that is only temporarily inhabited by his grieving children.
The scene is difficult to play, five adult siblings sitting around a dining room table discussing death, Dad, God and politics. Since all five children are relatively tame, the scene teeters on the oppressive. No Long Day’s Journey into Night here: no out-of-control emotions, no madness, no wracking confessions. Just the tedium of “how can you possibly vote Republican?” and “Well, I believe in God even if you don’t.” Forgive me for quoting the subtext here, not the actual script.
The play’s potential drift into doldrums is alleviated by an invisible Ghost Dad (played by Ron Crawford) who drifts in and out of the action, while the kids talk on uneasily. Once he brings with him an equally invisible and wonderfully well-behaved Saint Bernard dog (this is linked to Peter Pan, remember) across the stage. Comedy reasserts itself when one of the siblings calls out for Dad to give them a sign. Which he does, promptly, knocking a bowl to the floor, and shaking his kids into momentary and terrified dis/belief.
The play takes off in the next scene, when Ann relates a dream that she had that night of her Father’s death. The stage transforms into the bedroom of the sleeping Darling children. Ann, who has changed into a Peter Pan costume, awakens everyone with crowing (remember?). All the siblings are now these fanciful characters: Wendy is Wendy (Ellen McLaughlin), John is John (Charles Shaw Robinson) and Michael is Michael (Keith Reddin). Jim gets the enviable role of Captain Hook. Small bits of the brilliant and infinitely loveable story by the Victorian writer J. M. Barrie are introduced, including the return of Nana, the dog. But best of all, Peter flies! You can feel the audience’s energy rise with her in the air. Even with the clearly visible wires, which are attached by stagehands in full view.
Forget death, forget politics, forget the material world! We just want to fly! fly! fly!
– Jaime Robles
For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday continues at Berkeley Rep until July 3. For tickets and information, visit berkeleyrep.org or call 510-647-2949.
Photo: Ellen McLaughlin as Wendy and Kathleen Chalfant as Ann in Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre