In the classic Peter Pan, magic happens when people clap and think happy thoughts.
In Tony Award-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday at Berkeley Rep, Tinker Bell’s fairy-tale-like devotion emanates from a chandelier bulb and rings its arrival with the everyday sound of a spoon stirring Metamucil in a glass. The human form of frolicking freedom, Pan, is 70-years-old and has gout and age-spotted hands — but looks hot in green tights and can fly. The Darling family feuds but stops just short of ripping to shreds the humor-love fabric that is their tightly woven tapestry. Ultimately, dreams resolve long-held pain.
Playing like a treasured postcard — a light, fulsome harvest of memories — director Les Waters illuminates Ruhl’s imaginative take on J.M. Barrie’s best known character, Peter Pan, with a tender production. The script is sometimes overly sentimental and the first half of the production is surprisingly slow paced, but it’s partially outweighed by Ruhr’s ability to make everyday words sound mesmerizing. Plus, added appeal comes from how much audiences of a certain age crave this kind of fairy tale for adults.
Ann is our grownup Peter Pan (elegant, yet spunky Kathleen Chalfant), the oldest of five siblings gathered at their father’s deathbed. She’s an academic who uses words to shield herself from her fear of death and flying. Jim (David Chandler, convincingly irascible) is a surgeon who cuts cancer out of patients’ bodies and rails against regulated morphine quotas. A second physician in the family, Michael, (amiable Keith Reddin) is quick to forgive or reforge broken bonds with a joke. Rounding out the clan, John (sensitively played by Charles Shaw Robinson) is the gentle caretaker; Wendy (soulful Ellen McLaughlin) provides a sturdy female counterpoint to Ann — and offers shades of their long-dead cigarette-smoking, mildly progressive mother.
Collected in a hospital room to comfort the patriarch George (a perfectly understated Ron Crawford), the group is yanked along palliative care’s panic-boredom spectrum. Time stalls horribly, then jerks to full throttle whenever their father moans or — seconds after a home movie they’re watching of Ann flying as Peter Pan in a long-ago stage production elicits cheers — he emits his death rattle. “It’s ok for you to go, Dad,” says John, “You gave us each other.”
Indeed, the following scene has the siblings sharing memories and their individual perspectives on Santa Claus, prayer, dreams, and when they first felt “grownup.” A discussion of politics pushes the alliances as close to the brink as these peacemakers will come. In the absence of their parents — lacking their “sentry” and “adjudicator,” according to Ann — their 30-year arguments on faith and other beliefs cause them to realize they’re permanently “orphaned” grownups set on a path to responsibility.
But in this narrative tied to fairy tale whimsy, Neverland is another direction a dream will allow them to go instead. With an onstage costume change into a Pan-style jacket, hat, and shorts, Ann dreams that she and her siblings return to the fairy tale nursery where children never grow up. Hook reappears and is slain (a silly slaughtering of Chandler sporting a wig, in the best commedia dell’arte fashion). Peter Pan flies — marvelously.
The rest is best enjoyed without advance description, but suffice it to say that all the Darlings return to real life, except Pan.
Costumes by Kristopher Castle and Annie Smart’s scenic design suffice, but fall just short of adding enough zest to push the production into breathtaking visuals. And although the swoop of an actor lifted by wires sends the viewer’s imagination soaring momentarily, it’s hardly enough to lift the anchor of the preceding sixty minutes.
Ruhr has put her work on the Rep’s stage four times prior to Pan: Eurydice, In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), Three Sisters, and Dear Elizabeth. Paired with Waters on the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Vibrator Play, their combined energies were fiery. Here, to elicit magic, they rely on a superb cast an audience willing to clap and think happy thoughts.