Shattered Globe Presents A Chicago Premiere
To sit in the audience of Shattered Globe Theatre’s Chicago premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s play, For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, is a rare treat. Ruhl’s new play was written as a birthday gift for her mother, Kathleen. The story was inspired by her family life as well as her role playing Peter Pan at a community theatre in Davenport, Iowa. Directed by Jessica Thebus, Shattered Globe’s affecting production is so special because it stars the woman who inspired the piece.
Kathleen Ruhl, a well-known Chicago actor, is performing as Ann/Peter Pan in this production. On opening night, there were several seats marked with “Ruhl” underneath the words “Reserved Seats.” Ruhl took the stage to begin the play’s opening monologue in front of a radiant red stage curtain, framed by an ornate, golden proscenium arch, her family and daughter a few rows away. The beauty of this full-circle moment was palpable.
Family is Setting in For Peter Pan
Ann’s opening monologue details her role as Peter Pan at a local theatre in home, growing up believing in the magic of Peter Pan as well as the theatre, and her relationship with her parents. Her father, and especially his stinginess with praise, figures large in her past. When the red curtain gracefully opens at the culmination of her soliloquy, we bear witness to a colder reality than the warm portrait of the past she has just painted. Ann’s father, now an elderly man, lies motionless in a hospital bed, his five grown children surrounding him.
This setting forms the basis of the first third of Ruhl’s play, which moves from hospital to childhood home to dreamy memory as it progresses. The sparse design by Jack Magaw, combined with Sarah Jo White’s subtle costuming nods to the characters of Neverland, allows For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday to embrace a blurry line between the fleetingness of memory and the magic of theatre. Only the most important aspects of this world are rendered: the foreboding hospital bed; the small round table where the family used to eat together; a treasure chest on a theater’s stage. Even Michael Stanfill’s projection design is economical in its use, a collection of monochromatic cut-outs reminiscent of shadow puppetry that transform in a pivotal and moving scene.
A Moving Cast and Playwright
The cast in this Shattered Globe production excels at grounding their characters in the quotidien, while still highlighting each character's’ unique perspectives about the world and their father. Kathleen Ruhl’s infectious warmth at the beginning of the play glows brightly throughout the production, although it is in her long monologues that her character’s opinions truly shine. Doug McDade, Eileen Niccolai, HB Ward, and Ben Werling round out the remaining children and show us how the memory of their older sister and their relationship with their father has affected their own individual development. A quiet performance from Patrick Thornton as their father, Michael, provides humor and deep insight in the economy of his gesture. He is both specific and universal in his portrayal of a father, allowing the audience to project their own familial recollections onto him without feeling like a flat character, despite his lack of much dialogue.
Language that Sings
There is one more aspect of For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday that helps to vividly paint a portrait of five siblings grieving the death of their father and confronting the realization that they have become the defacto adults of the family, and that is Ruhl’s writing itself. Her language, though as colloquial as it is functional, brims with lyricism and wit. Deep truths about life, death, religion, and existence are pondered throughout the piece, and each actor treats these revelations with an everyman simplicity. As a result, different lines of Ruhl’s play are sure to sing differently to each individual, but sing they will. What is most impressive is how her evocative use of language tantalizes all of our senses, letting audiences catch glimpses of how her characters’ lives sounded, smelled, and tasted. These vivid descriptives speak volumes to each character's humanity. Coupled with Thebus’ skilled direction, a subtle magic combines with these everyday and universal themes to create a heartfelt performance that resonates on multiple levels.
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Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Extended Through Saturday, May 27, 2017
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 3 pm.
Touch Tour/Audio Description Performance: Friday, May 5 – 6:30 pm touch tour, 8 pm performance with audio description. $20 tickets available with code “ACCESS.”
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$35 general admission. Discounts: $15 students, $28 seniors, $20 under 30. $15 industry on Thursdays with code “INDUSTRY.” Tickets are currently available at www.theaterwit.org, in person at the Theater Wit Box Office or by calling (773) 975-8150. Group discounts are available by contacting email@example.com or by calling (773) 770-0333.