By JESSICA NEU
Sarah Ruhl’s play For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday does not actually look at the fictional character Peter Pan turning 70. Instead, it follows five siblings as they navigate the grief surrounding their father’s (Patrick Conner) death. The eldest of the five children, Ann (Clare Fraley), played Peter Pan in local theater productions as a child. Ann clings to the memories of playing Peter Pan. The mythical constructs of Neverland and never growing up serve as metaphors woven throughout the show to support the siblings’ discussions or arguments about adulthood, depending on your perspective. Playing at the Little Lake Theater June 15-25, director Helga Terre presents a thought-provoking tale of grief, gratitude, and growing up.
Although the ages of the siblings are never specifically disclosed, Anne is established as the eldest and approaching 70 years old. She opens the show with a monologue reminiscing about her days as a child playing Peter Pan and even meeting Mary Martin, who originated the role of Pan on Broadway. Her father, who is now dying, never missed a show and always greeted her with flowers at the end of a production. Anne admittedly “stopped flying” around the time she started having children, which is a sentiment I’m sure many of us can relate to. However, now that her father is in his final days and her mother, her husband, and some of her friends have also passed away, Anne is faced with acknowledging her mortality despite still seeing herself in the timeless, ageless place of Neverland.
Ann’s monologue gives way to her four siblings and her sitting around their father’s hospital bed. Jim (Art DeConciliis), John (Andy Cornelius), Michael (Rick Bryant), and Wendy (Renee Kern) all take turns anxiously pacing around the room, both hoping for their father to pass quickly and comfortably, but at the same time praying for one more day before saying goodbye. Each of the actors, all Pittsburgh theater veterans, homogenizes seamlessly into a believable biological family.
The dialogue between the siblings is the core of the show and is filled to capacity with thought-provoking yet controversial topics. Jim, a practicing surgeon for the past 30 years, is adamant that his father be given morphine for comfort, but this inquiry leads to a debate over assisted suicide. The internal struggle we all feel as our morals or values are challenged continues to ebb and flow throughout the production. Ann, the only Liberal of the Catholic Conservative group, is the first to begin the “Our Father” prayer when their dad does pass, a decision that her brothers call into question in scene 2 when they question her political beliefs.
The actors attend to their father’s passing with care and veracity. As he departs, the siblings gather hotel accessories (water pitchers, cafeteria trays) and march around the hospital bed singing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” reminding us that everyone responds to grief in a manner that feels right to them and that any response is personally cathartic. However, the mood is lightened with comedic relief when their father gets out of the hospital bed and walks off stage as an endearing transfer into the afterlife.
Conner’s impeccable nonverbal acting continues into subsequent scenes as he visits his children, either confirming or challenging our beliefs about what happens when we pass away. Conner’s charm helps to keep the play from being unbearably serious.
As the siblings gather around their parents’ dining room table, taking shots of Jameson, they channel their grief and confusion by reminiscing, debating, and rationalizing their own mortality.
The play is set in the mid-1990s during the Clinton or “slick Willy” era, but their discussions remain pertinent today. They debate politics, Medicare, religious beliefs, the legitimacy of Santa Claus, what happens when you die, the consequences of holding onto false beliefs, and the difference between selfishness vs. self-interest. However, the central metaphor of Peter Pan comes back into focus as each sibling ponders what it means to be a grown-up and if they see themselves as such. In the second act, we see this metaphor come to fruition as Ann, still unable to reconcile her inevitable mortality, reimagines herself as Peter Pan once more.
When do we grow up? Sure, there are age milestones, rites of passage, and significant life events such as getting married and having children, but at what point do we grow up? Undoubtedly the answer to this question is different for everyone and at the heart of the play. Peter Pan is a wake-up call to the celebration of multiplicity. The brothers note that although they all identify as Republicans, they still listen to liberal media to be well informed. Jim notes that there are not enough sensible Aristotelians left in the world who want to dig deep and get stuff done. They talk about their father, who grew up dirt poor, worked hard for everything he had, and voted Republican his whole life, yet never waivered in his generosity or thought for others. Disagreements inevitably arise during these discussions, but the siblings poignantly note, “If we can’t talk to each other, how do we expect the public to talk to each other and get along?” Two decades later, that is still a major question as social and political tensions rise. While I, unfortunately, have no reasonable resolution to this question, plays such as For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday remind us that mortality is inevitable. Still, we can spend our lives celebrating the present instead of chasing the past.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday has performances now through June 25th. Tickets at: https://www.littlelake.org/peterpanonher70thbirthday