Playwright: Sarah Ruhl. At: Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150 or ShatteredGlobe.org; $35. Runs through: May 20
With the Chicago premiere of Sarah Ruhl's 2016 play For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, Shattered Globe Theatre has already laid claim to the casting coup of the season. Ruhl wrote this play in honor of her theater-loving actress mother, Kathleen Ruhl, and she herself is playing her daughter's dramatized version of herself.
Like other Ruhl plays ( The Clean House, eurydice ), For Peter Pan… is filled with the playwright's usual dreamy mix of whimsy and seriousness. And since Ruhl has J.M. Barrie's most famous creation to riff on, For Peter Pan… can be especially potent and poignant in exploring faith, familial love and lost childhood.
The play begins with Kathleen Ruhl sharing anecdotes about playing Peter Pan as a child in Davenport, Iowa, and getting to meet arguably the most famous Peter Pan of the 20th century, the Broadway star Mary Martin. But the meat of the play really deals with Kathleen and her four grown siblings in the 1990s.
Ruhl dramatizes the before-and-after moments when the five adults realize that they are no longer technically children. It's the hospital death of their last surviving parent, George ( Doug McDade ).
The siblings then hash out the happy/sad memories of their childhood, career choices and questions of faith and belief. These arguments that then veer into angrily divisive political views which almost feel shoehorned in. The brothers played by Patrick Thornton, H.B. Ward and Ben Werling are all aggressively conservative, while Ruhl and her sister played by Eileen Niccolai are both defensively liberal.
Into this mix, George and a family pet make "unseen" appearances as if Ruhl suggests that a person can still be alive as long as they live on in others' memories. And given the play's title, the siblings do get to dress up in Peter Pan character drag to highlight how one's childhood is nearly impossible to recapture.
Despite the lack of stage flying as in previous productions of For Peter Pan…, director Jessica Thebus does work well with production designer Michael Stanfill to inject the necessary stage magic into the production. What isn't quite there is the feeling among the ensemble that they're all siblings with lifelong patterns of familial love and resentment. Hopefully that sense will emerge more naturally as the run continues.
But what is nice about For Peter Pan… is the way that playwright Ruhl honors her actress mother. As long as For Peter Pan… is produced, Kathleen Ruhl and her family relations will continue to live. In this instance, this theatrical gift of life is certainly a wonderful present.