There is something brave about attempting peace on stage, the lack of words. How do you effectively command the audience’s attention without speaking to them?
This is something that the playwright Sarah Ruhl attempts in For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday, as five siblings—Ann (Kathleen Chalfant), John (Daniel Jenkins), Michael (Keith Reddin), Jim (David Chandler), and Wendy (Lisa Emery)—gather around the bed of their dying, nameless father (Ron Crawford).
Before that familiar medicalized vista of tubes, and beeps and relatives’ confusion, worry, and fatigue reveals itself to the audience, we meet Chalfant’s Ann, who perkily appears in front of the play’s curtain, addressing us as—well we assume Kathleen Chalfant, multi-award winning actress, famous for her roles in Angels in America and Wit, and most recently seen as Maura Tierney’s not-to-be-crossed mother in Showtime’s The Affair.
But Chalfant is actually addressing as Ann, revealing how as a little girl she had so enjoyed playing Peter Pan in a production as a little girl in Davenport, Iowa.
This is an autobiographical play for the Tony-nominated Ruhl, who has also been a Pulitzer finalist, and whose own mother grew up playing Peter Pan in Davenport, Iowa.
The play, she says, is a gift for her mother—and just as Chalfant as Ann describes, Ruhl too has delighted in the pictures of her mother as Peter in green tights, one photograph from back then featuring her alongside the actress Mary Martin, touring through Iowa at that time.
Her mother playing Pan embodied the magic of theatre, and her mother too—like the characters on stage—nursed her husband and mother and father all through cancer until all three died.
Crafting this play, Ruhl had in mind the Llewelyn Davies children that J.M. Barrie said were so intrinsic to the creation of Peter Pan, and so it is the characters names reflect both elements of Pan and Barrie.
One of the play’s biggest weaknesses is one of its central reasons of being: Ruhl has said she wanted to see if she could craft a family drama without it hinging on “mudslinging and skeletons in the closet.”
On stage, sadly, this faithfulness to the love and cadences of her own family is a little listless to watch in a fictional one. There may be a reality, for Ruhl, to their wordplay and memory recall, but without any overt tensions the plot fizzles—amiably enough, but that isn’t enough.
After the father’s death Crawford hangs around as a ghostly figure, unseen, but whose presence has not only an occasionally poltergeist effect (dismissed as nonsense by most in the family except Wendy). Macy the dog is an impressive canine performer, another fondly remembered ghost now reunited with their master.
So, where can all this go? The play is initially confusing as Chalfant seems a fair bit older than her siblings (you wonder if she is the mother initially). Pan himself is the binding agent: Ann doesn’t want to age predictably and slowly, she doesn’t even feel old; and so suddenly the family drama segues back to where we began and Ann playing Peter Pan himself (and, to be honest, her caw-cawing as Peter Pan is enough for us all to root for Captain Hook to do his worst).
Here the play becomes both comedy and drama, with the Peter Pan story running parallel to interjecting voices from the world of adult reality that you simply cannot return to childhood and the way things were. The Peter Pan model is unsustainable.
The performers, particularly Chalfant, skillfully segue from real world to Pan-world; the writing, tonally, is more discordant—but watching Chalfant fly is enough to lift any heart.
Other critics have raved about Simon Stephens’ On The Shore of The Wide World, a drama set in the mid-aughts in Stockport, in the north west of England. Here, a family across generations is dealing with death, possible infidelity, the flight of another child to London, and elder domestic abuse.
That’s quite the picnic basket of dysfunction, and Stephens’ play itself has a supple brilliance to it. However, the actors in this production—and they had a dialect coach, so this fundamental failing really is bizarre—speak in such a maddening hodge-podge of British and Irish accents (from East End Cockney to flashes of Scots and very posh Downton, and even occasionally sound American-Southern) that it makes it impossible, for this British spectator anyway, to take this intense drama that seriously.
Whatever they are speaking, it is not a northwest English accent (at best the correct diction comes in staccato flashes and is not sustained). This genuinely isn’t intended to be cruel, but surely if you are going to perform a play like On The Shore, with such a definite geographical setting and accent—which you have employed a dialect coach to presumably hone—then how did you end up with this?
The actors surely know individually that their own attempted accents are inconsistent as the performance progresses. They certainly seem to rush at the text when more slowness and sensitive pacing is required. It became, for me anyway, a polyglottal mess, even as my brain tried to work past all the bizarre attempts at north-west England-speak into the brilliance of Stephens’ words.
It should be said that others in the audience did not feel or hear it in the same way, and so—in this case—an ignorance of regional British accents among an American audience may be to On The Shore’s advantage. But some free advice to everyone involved: watch some Coronation Street on YouTube.
For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday is at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, NYC, until October 1. Book tickets here. On The Shore of The Wide World is at the Linda Gross Theater, Atlantic Theater, 336 West 20th Street, NYC, until October 8. Book tickets here.