Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
(left to right) Kathleen Ruhl, Ben Werling, Eileen Niccolai, HB Ward and Patrick Thornton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Review: FOR PETER PAN ON HER 70TH BIRTHDAY at Shattered Globe Theatre
By Bec Willett
There are moments in life that really stick with you. I can only imagine that for award-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl and her actor mother Kathleen Ruhl that Shattered Globe’s production of FOR PETER PAN ON HER 70TH BIRTHDAY is one of them. Penned as a gift to her mother on her 70th birthday, Ruhl’s play is inspired by her mother’s theatrical career. Beginning with the story of her childhood performance as Peter Pan, and then, with all the appropriate metaphors about growing up, the play moves into the story of five fifty-plus siblings dealing with their father’s death. What makes this production particularly special is not only that a trio of women helm this ship, but that the role of the oldest sibling, Ann, is played by the inspiration herself, Kathleen Ruhl. While as an artist I am excited by the idea behind this process, as a reviewer I can only comment on the product and unfortunately, this product is not as sweet as the idea behind it.
A show that invokes the name of Peter Pan leads one to expect magic. From the first moment of light on the gilded proscenium through to the last flight through the clouds of fantasy, Shelley Strasser’s lighting and Michael Stanfill’s projections create all the magic one could hope for. The performances, however, do not. Whether it was direction, under-preparation or something else altogether, this group of seasoned actors did not seem to have a consistent sense of pace for the show. While each character was defined, they felt superficially so. As the eldest of five, these siblings’ dynamic was one I could easily be engaged by, but in this performance, the depth of relationship — the sort that comes from growing up with each other — was missing.
Ruhl’s writing encourages meaning in every element. Strong moments in Jessica Thebus’ direction were those that made the most of this, imbuing meaning in everyday items and actions — such as the use of a trunk as a flying ship, and the characters touching of their dying father. However, there were other elements that seemed less fully realized.
Regardless of some of this production’s missteps, Ruhl’s writing shines through as every bit as impeccable and insightful as expected. While the product may not be perfect, the beauty of this gift and the process behind it remain.