Monday, December 3, 2018

Never Land: "For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday" Opens at POTS

Posted By on Mon, Dec 3, 2018 at 2:38 PM

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"We're orphans," a mature Wendy wails to her siblings, who aren't getting any younger. Their dad has just died, finally. They were all there to share the  passage, and assure him he'd given them each other to lean on. But there's nobody "standing sentry" between the children and death now, and that's the premise from which this story unwinds. Sort of. It's a little unclear, since dad's prankster ghost, and his ghost dog, wander aimlessly in and out of scenes like the invisible dead people in one of Bill Keane's Family Circus cartoons.

Sarah Ruhl's short play For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday isn't the stuff holiday classics are made of. Playhouse on the Square's seasoned cast finds the show's poignant moments, and hardcore local theater fans may get a little verklempt to see Memphis favorites Ann Marie Hall and Emily Peckham fly in the show's last movement. But there's an awful lot of runway before takeoff. There's a lot of content about death, aging, more death, political squabbles, and nagging reminders that time flies, which is the last thing anybody wants to think about when they're watching iffy theater. But for all of the brave cast's best efforts, For Peter Pan ... seldom soars and it's anything but uplifting. And for clocking in at under 90-minutes, this brief encounter is also an endurance test. 

Ruhl is always surprising. She subverts expectations and breaks rules. The grim-spirited one-act, For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, finds Ruhl in an autobiographical mood, and uncommonly prosaic. Her play takes us from the theater where we're watching the play in real time, to a hospital room in the 1990's as five children watch their dad die a less-than-easy death, to an Irish wake, and finally to Neverland, where adults act out disjointed bits of the Peter Pan story like children improvising on a playground.

Playhouse on the Square has produced Peter Pan 27 times over its 49 years of existence. If the company has a signature piece, it's the musical adaptation of J.M. Barrie's famous story — a dark fantasy of pirates, fairies, and a developmentally arrested narcissist with superpowers and a history of luring young girls and boys off to Neverland. The century-old story has always been popular, but a brightened version burrowed its way into the psyche of the "Forever Young" generation when Broadway actress Mary Martin flew into homes across America by way of live TV broadcasts on NBC. For Peter Pan... was written as a birthday gift for Ruhl's actress mother who played the crowing leader of lost boys when she was a teenager, and who met Martin during the older actress's high-flying heyday. It's a faintly Jungian interpretation of the post-Martin Pan that shows up in the play's unsatisfying final movement.

For Peter Pan...
asks several versions of the ultimate question: What happens when we die? But the play and its characters seem more concerned with the penultimate question: When do you consider yourself a grownup? Most of us, of a certain age, are familiar with the phenomenon of living with minds as nimble, silly, and ready for adventure as they ever were, housed in bodies that creak just thinking about exercise. This is the kind of bittersweet prank on humanity Tennessee Williams regularly twisted up into literate, deeply surreal tragicomedy. But Ruhl,  a writer who does literate and surreal as well as anybody, can't quite seem to land this one. Without the aid of pulleys and wires (and the best local actors you can find) it might never get airborne in the first place.

For Peter Pan... is a bit like Thornton Wilder's Our Town crashed into Luigi Pirandello's famous meta-rehearsal, Six Characters in Search of an Author. Much of the show's content revolves around the relationship between creations and their creators. The pivotal central characters rehearse their adult roles, while searching for a plan. There's so much possibility here, but almost none of it's been fleshed out.

To be fair, I don't think #AARPAN (as the cast has taken to hashtagging it) was ready to be reviewed on the night of its preview performance at Playhouse on the Square. Then again, I'm not sure slickness or polish will have anything to do with whether or not For Peter Pan... finds an audience. Director Tony Isbell has assembled a first-rate cast and the show will improve with repetition. But like a kid who won't mature, this story also lacks is a plan. And like those same kids, that's only charming for a short time.

Like Isbell, most of the actors in this ensemble have shown both an incredible commitment to the local theater community, and a strong independent spirit. Whether they're working in the spotlight, or just offstage, Hall, Sam Weakly, Gordon Ginsberg, Mark Pergolizzi, and Emily Peckham all have a history of taking risks. The good that happens in this show is a direct result of their vulnerability, generosity, etc.

Audiences will no doubt connect with For Peter Pan's most humane moments. That's no guarantee that anybody will leave the theater crowing. 

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