Maybe I was being too literal the other night when I saw “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” at People’s Light in Malvern, but I couldn’t see the point of Sarah Ruhl’s mystical and mystifying play. Not that mystical plays can’t make sense — when they do, they can radiate satisfying magic. This one never reaches anything near that point of light.
The first scene is a tense hospital-room death vigil. It moves on to a little family wake with five fully adult siblings remembering their dead father, veering awkwardly into politics, expounding on the notion of faith, and trying to define what it means to be grown-ups. Then the 80-minute play ends in a sort of fever dream that casts all five of them in the roles from “Peter Pan.”
I know what Abigail Adams, the leader of People’s Light and director of the show, says: She writes in an essay that “For Peter Pan…” is about family storytelling. And another piece in the program lays out the play’s backstory: Ruhl, a sharp, inventive playwright, wrote it as a gift for her mom’s 70th birthday. That accomplished woman, Kathleen Ruhl, played Peter Pan when she was a teenager in Davenport, Iowa, and went on to become a professional actress.
Although I can’t fathom how the broad topic of family storytelling is at the center of “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday,” one particular story does drive the show. Ann, one of the five siblings, played Peter Pan as a high schooler in Davenport, and she opens the show by coming onstage to tell us about it. It appears to be a high point — and maybe the high point — of her life, not least because her father, sparse with his praise, brought her a bouquet after the performance. That thin premise doesn’t make you cheer her on; it more likely makes you feel sorry for her.
And that was the extent of feeling I mustered for these siblings through the evening. This, despite the fact that “For Peter Pan…” is — after the aptly somber hospital vigil — briskly directed and has three altogether different sets, impressively designed by Tony Cisek. It also has fine-tuned ensemble acting, all by People’s Light ensemble members who know how to build characters in a play that doesn’t give some of them much of an opportunity.
Marcia Saunders is Ann, the woman who was once Peter Pan, and although she lacks the no-nonsense Midwestern natural accent of Iowa folk (her vowels fit more into South Philly), Saunders’ cadence and her solid presence fit the role. Her siblings are Leonard C. Haas, Stephen Novelli, and Mary Elizabeth Scallen (their characters are Michael, John and Wendy, same names as the kids in “Peter Pan”), and Peter DeLaurier. Their father, played by Graham Smith, has the thankless job of being dead and, in spite of it, manages to be livelier than you’d suspect at first. Two dogs alternate performances as the family pet.
Perhaps Ruhl is trying for too much here: At various points, the characters explore their relationships to religion (they were raised Catholic) and pit conservative and liberal ideas against each other, and talk about the imprints a family makes (or fails to make) on its
members. Of course, they consider what it means to declare that “I’ll never grow up,” the mantra of Peter Pan’s eternal youth.
Put it all together, with a fantasy ending, and you have … I’m still not sure what.
“For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” runs through May 12 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org.