Pictured: Kathleen Ruhl, Ben Werling, Eileen Niccolai, HB Ward and Patrick Thornton in Shattered Globe Theatre’s Chicago premiere of FOR PETER PAN ON HER 70th BIRTHDAY by Sarah Ruhl. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Brynne Frauenhoffer
Attend any production of FOR PETER PAN ON HER 70TH BIRTHDAY and you’re guaranteed to witness a deeply intimate play — a gift, in fact — written by playwright Sarah Ruhl specifically for her mother, Kathleen Ruhl.
“When I turned 70, I found that all of a sudden pretty scary — like you’re looking at a brick wall that you’re rushing toward,” says Kathleen. “So [Sarah] wrote this as a present to kind of reassure me. Not that I would live forever, but to make it seem not quite so scary.”
The onstage portrayal of the playwright’s actual family offers a rare kind of realism, no matter who’s playing the roles. But for the most raw experience of the Ruhls, you can’t miss Shattered Globe’s production, in which Kathleen Ruhl plays herself.
Long before Sarah won international acclaim for her writing — before she was even born — Kathleen began acting in plays for other schoolchildren and, in high school, starred as Peter Pan. Twice.
“I remember flying was pretty primitive,” Kathleen recalls. “The second [production] was in a big old movie theater and I got up pretty high…It wasn’t scary. It hurts, because the harness cut into your thighs. That was the downside.”
Following her starring turn, Kathleen performed throughout her undergrad at Smith, then arrived in Chicago in 1964 to pursue a career in a burgeoning theater scene.
“Off-Loop theater was just starting,” Kathleen says. “In the early days in Chicago, it was all just very tentative.” With the Chicago City Players, she performed in a variety of exciting new productions and spaces. “We did Sam Shepard, we did Lanford Wilson — you know, new things that had just been done in New York.”
Over time, Kathleen found less time for performing as she moved to the suburbs, gave birth to two daughters, taught high school English, and pursued a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Still, Sarah recalls a childhood steeped in theater.
“She would say a line from a play she was in, and we had to guess the character. We played a game like that around the dining room table,” Sarah remembers. “She would just always be quoting Ionesco as she walked around the kitchen, or singing show tunes from GUYS AND DOLLS in the car. There was always something theatrical or silly or improvisational going on.”
Sarah watched Kathleen perform in a number of plays at the Piven Theatre Workshop, and attended a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Kathleen. “I remember seeing her dying, which is so disturbing as a child,” Sarah recalls. “I think she died in a Flannery O’Connor play.”
She also grew up keenly aware of Kathleen’s years as Peter Pan. “There were pictures in our house of our mother flying in green tights,” she says.
From an early age, she did her best to contribute to her mother’s work. “There were times when I would be working on a monologue,” says Kathleen, “and she’d say, ‘Oh Mom, let me take notes! I’ll listen and take notes.’ And she couldn’t even write, but she’d get out a little legal pad and a pen, and then have really smart things to say afterward.”
When asked if she knew then that her daughter would be a writer, Kathleen replies, “Well of course she wanted to be a writer, and was a writer, when she was a kid and doing as much writing as she was doing…I remember one of the great children’s writers saying…’Writers are always writers! They’ve always been writers!’ So in that sense, I knew [Sarah] would be a writer, but I didn’t know it would take the form of theater.”
Though she never stopped acting, Kathleen’s career resurged in the new millennium thanks to a suggestion from a friend. “After my husband died, Sarah’s then-boyfriend’s father said, ‘Why don’t you do the non-Equity generals?’” Kathleen says. “And so I did!” From those auditions, Kathleen was cast in a role at Court Theatre and, according to her, “Everything I’ve done since has come from that in some way.”
Plenty has happened since, for both mother and daughter. While Sarah’s plays became Pulitzer Prize finalists and Tony Award nominees, Kathleen performed in productions all over the city and became a company member at RedTwist.
When Sarah first presented Kathleen with FOR PETER PAN…, it might seem like a given that the actress would eventually take on the leading role. But the choice was not automatic when Sarah penned the play.
“When I first gave it to her, I wasn’t even sure she’d want to,” Sarah says, “because it seemed so crazy and postmodern an idea, to play a version of yourself.”
The world premiere at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville and a subsequent production at Berkeley Rep did not cast any of Sarah’s actual family members in their roles — though many of them attended performances.
“It’s funny, one of my brothers and I went to a performance in Louisville when it was at the Humana Fest,” says Kathleen, “and people kept saying, ‘Oh God, wasn’t it weird watching someone playing you?’ And no — it wasn’t somehow.”
But a staged reading eventually brought the possibility into focus for both Ruhls.
“Once I did a table reading of it, I thought, ‘Oh boy, I really want to do this,’” Kathleen says. “I was discreet, but I think Sarah knew that I wanted to. So she made it happen. And that is a particularly great gift.”
In some sense, the pair has honored the typical actor-playwright relationship throughout the rehearsal process.
“I think she and Jess [director Jessica Thebus] have done a lot of talking. She and I not so much,” Kathleen says. “I think she wants the regular protocol to be observed — that the director is the one who’s telling me what to do… In a sense, it’s the same as the process for any other play, except in this case we’re all playing people who are still alive. And are going to be coming to the play. And of course, in my case, I’m playing myself. It is a little different. But the same.”
However, the living history elements of the play have prompted some unique conversations between the two, and with the rest of the cast.
“One thing that’s been hilarious is [Kathleen will] lean on me and say, ‘Actually it was the Masonic Temple, not the Shriners Temple, so can we change that?’ and I say, ‘Absolutely!’” Sarah says with a laugh. “In that sense, it’s been very unorthodox. Normally I wouldn’t let my mother change a line in my play, or any actor really, and I wouldn’t solicit notes from family members. But in this case, it’s just a different kind of creature. A different kind of beast.”
It’s certainly a unique dynamic, filling a rehearsal room with actors playing real people, recreating real events, then popping one actor into the scene who actually saw how everything truly happened.
“I think they were a little nervous about it,” Kathleen says of her castmates. “Jessica said, ‘I want that strangeness to be up front, and dealt with as part of the project.’ So the second night, after the first table read, she had me tell the cast family stories and had them ask questions.”
While she has shared helpful anecdotes and tweaks throughout rehearsal, Kathleen enjoys just how spot-on the cast’s portrayals of her siblings can be without her input. “There are so many ways in which each of them really is so much like my brothers,” she says. “The girl playing my sister…she’s definitely got the right innards to do it. It’s just great. I love working with them.”
Sarah makes sure to point out that, though drawn from true events, the play is far from documentary. “I think it’s important that I say that it’s a version of [Kathleen],” Sarah stresses. “There’s living history from my family, but I don’t think that the characters are my family or is my mother, certainly because it’s ontologically impossible but partly because there are composites of stories, and composites of memories, and made-up memories, so it’s not an exact replica by any stretch.”
Though it does have the most obvious influences, For Peter Pan certainly isn’t the first play pulled from Sarah’s life experiences.
“There are little details from our family life and history in all of Sarah’s plays,” Kathleen asserts. She cites one monologue in EURYDICE that features directions from Sarah’s childhood home in Wilmette to Kathleen’s parents’ house in Iowa.
As Sarah puts it, “I think that when you write plays, you’re always dealing with having an avatar, in a sense, playing little fragments of yourself.”
This is the first time, however, that Kathleen has played such a personal role. “In a certain sense, I guess the emotions are maybe more available in that I don’t have to find an analogue for them,” she reflects. “I have to say at this moment…somehow the anxiety is being drained out of it, and I’m really having a good time.”
Some of Sarah and Kathleen’s family members have seen the play in previous productions, but for several, this will be the first time.
“My brother who lives in this area is going to come several times, I think, and bring friends,” Kathleen predicts. “He gets a big kick out of it.”
“I think I’ll bring my oldest daughter Anna,” Sarah says. “It’s really not a children’s play, with the death of a family member in the first part and a big political fight in the second part. But I’m sure she’ll love the third part, so I might just have her wait in the green room and I’ll bring her out for the third part.”
Originally, this younger Ruhl vehemently opposed the biographical elements of the show.
“When she first heard about this play she was just outraged!” Kathleen says of her granddaughter. “‘How can you write lines for Kaki? When Kaki talks she makes up her own words! How can you write about someone who is actually alive? This is a terrible idea, mother! You should cancel this.’”
But she’s since come around to the idea of watching her grandmother onstage, and chances are good that she’ll be the next Ruhl to make her mark on the theater world.
“She’s been in a couple school plays — she was in THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH most recently. She has the theater bug,” Sarah confirms. “I guess it’s three generations.”
FOR PETER PAN ON HER 70th BIRTHDAY runs through May 20th at Shattered Globe Theater. For more information visit shatteredglobe.org.