What Works and Doesn't Work with 'For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday'

Lindsay Timmington

"I wrote For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday as a gift for my mother,” says playwright Sarah Ruhl in the program notes for the current production of For Peter Pan, currently playing at Playwright's Horizons. Later she mentions that Peter Pan author J.M Barrie wrote the classic book for the five children that inspired the story. The Peter Pan parallels begin in the program notes and continue all the way until the end of this 90-minute play.

There is much to love about this gift that Ruhl gives as much to audiences as she does her mother, but unfortunately (and I say this as Ruhl's #1 fan) this production just doesn't fly, or do her script justice. The acting feels unsure and uncertain and I struggled to believe the relationships, particularly when physical contact was initiated, amongst the siblings. I longed for more chemistry or grit or something and that feeling remained pervasive throughout. The direction lacked strong, clear choices and felt a little sloppy. Moments that had potential seemed to fall dissipate quickly either because of the direction or acting, but it was hard to determine the culprit.

It's a shame because this play is full of exquisite Easter Eggs for audiences to find and delight in. Those moments were the part of this production that worked best and yielded the greatest payoff. The snaps of synchronicity where ghosts appear and collide with the real world - these were the times that made my heart flutter but I wished for more.

One of the many amazing things about Ruhl's work is her willingness to experiment with structure.  For Peter Pan is written in what Ruhl refers to as "a contemporary Midwestern Noh drama" Noh is a Japanese theatre form with a three-part structure: the main character meets the ghosts, then recognizes the ghost, then embraces the ghost. In the most literal sense, this works as a literary notion but it was uneasily executed for the stage and in my estimation, gets lost in this production.

What did work were Ruhl's words and stage directions (often my favorite part of her shows) and the gorgeous set design by David Zinn. Zinn captured the three worlds that Ruhl gives us by confining us to a hospital room at the outset, but allowing us to see where we'll travel by not concealing the family home, dining table, hall buffet or wings of the theatre. As we are transported to each of these locales the scenic design felt like it supported the script more than the acting or direction, and even then, that wasn't enough.

At curtain, Peter Pan tells the audience that she was never scared to fly in the theatre and Ruhl, it seems is never afraid to lift the ceiling off her plays and expose all the strings, messiness and vastness her created worlds contain. It's unfortunate that this production never really seems to take off but it's not for lack of the fairy dust sprinkled throughout Ruhl's script.

Photo: Joan Marcus