Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday
The Pear Theatre is presenting a charming, well-directed-and-acted For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday. Roughly based on real-life events and people, Ruhl's play focuses on the subjects of aging, coming to terms with one's mortality, and the role of fantasy and dream in helping us through the journey of life. Even though the playwright does little in her script to advance these topics beyond the mundane and the obvious–an issue that has been critically noted since the world premiere at the Humana Festival in 2016–this Pear production on its intimate stage works delightfully well, surprising this reviewer who overall panned (excuse the pun) the Berkeley Rep production, also in 2016.
Sarah Ruhl divides her play into three acts, which she calls "movements." She strives to approximate a Japanese Noh drama in which the protagonist meets a ghost, then recognizes the ghost, and finally dances/embraces the ghost. In Ruhl's interpretation, the three acts each deal with an aspect of death and the process of dealing with the loss of a loved one.
In the first act, the family of five siblings gathers around the hospital bed of a comatose father, waiting for him to die with their (and our) enduring a couple of cough-infested false passings. In the second, they sit around the father's kitchen table with a bottle of Irish whiskey, engaging in a family wake where–like in many similar scenes of numerous, contemporary plays–alcohol and grief mix to resurrect conflicts and arguments that have simmered among them for decades. In the final segment, siblings sleep in their childhood beds as reality and fantasy soon intertwine in a visit to Neverland where their desires never grow up and their pains of aging and the realities of present, everyday lives confront and collide, resulting in the most entertaining and satisfying of the three movements.
Monica Cappuccini plays the oldest sibling, Ann, modeled after Sarah Ruhl's own mother, and it is her sparkling, sure-fired presence on the stage that particularly makes this Pear outing a worthwhile ticket to acquire. From the play's first moments when she is the playwright's mother in front of the curtain showing us her 1955 Mary Martin-autographed Playbill for Peter Pan, Monica Cappuccini commands the stage with eyes that twinkle, subtle smirks, smiles, and side glances that speak volumes, and an attracting, fascinating accent that strongly hints of upper-class British.
That there is no reason an aging actress from Iowa should have such an aristocratic-sounding lean in her speech does not really matter. It somehow works for this Ann, especially as she reminisces about the thrill of flying as Peter Pan, declaring that even at her age, "I pride myself in not being a grown-up," and as she sighs and confesses, "I can't shake the disappointment that I haven't done something [in my life], whatever that might be." When Ann finds her green Peter Pan hat in an old trunk and dons it along with the matching tops and tights that she once wore on stage, Monica Cappuccini magically and mightily cock-a-doodle-doos in a dream world where she has for a short while in fact not grown up. She almost makes us believe that we too can reverse the aging process to be childlike again.
Joining eldest Ann in the hospital room, the kitchen, and their old bedroom are (in descending order of age) siblings John (Bill Davidovich), Jim (John Mannion), Michael (Ronald Feichtmeir), and Wendy (Tannis Hanson). As directed by Austin Edgington, their love is palpable throughout, even as they raise not only toasts to departed family members, but also controversial topics like politics, religion, and who the parents loved most. Of course, those conversation excursions degenerate into arguments and result in increasingly raised voices as tempers flare, old wounds open, and feelings are hurt. The divides are a bit too predictable in this 1990, Clinton-era setting (e.g., the brothers are arch conservatives; the sisters, flag-waving liberals), but the beauty of this production is that the hurts and divides are temporary. There is a very real sense that these family members can talk about socially and politically divisive issues and can still listen and even empathize a bit with the other side. How different those same arguments might look if the time period were 2024 rather than 1990.
In each of the three movements, Ray Renati appears as The Father. He is first a ghastly looking, mostly non-moving, dying man, desperately gasping occasionally for final breaths. Next, he is a rather bemused ghost watching his grown children drink and argue (and talk about him) as he goes about his daily business (reading the morning paper, eating his favorite grapefruit, heading to the bathroom, chomping on a bowl of crunchy snacks). Finally, he enters into the memory bank of Ann as the proud father who hugs her with love after her performance as Peter Pan. Another reason to venture to The Pear is to relish the richly rewarding and whimsical performance of Ray Renati in each of these both real and fantastical portrayals.
Kudos also to the entire Pear production team. The three sets of hospital, kitchen, and bedroom transformed into Neverland reflect the creativity of designer Louis Stone-Collonge. Each scene is greatly enhanced by the lighting of Carsten Koester, especially once we are in Neverland and when the frisky Tinkerbell makes occasional appearances. Sound designer Dan Holland ensures our waiting for the first curtain and the rather long pauses between movements are not boring by providing a terrific selection of familiar tunes by the likes of the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and James Taylor, and also beautifully reflective music that allows us to contemplate our own thoughts about vanished youth, current aging, and imminent death. Finally, Greet Jaspaert's costuming particularly takes on some fun designs as Peter, John, Michael, and Wendy return to Neverland and even meet up with the dreaded Captain Hook.
While For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday may be seen by many of her fans as Sarah Ruhl's weakest script, The Pear Theatre has figured out how to find the gems within it and has produced ninety minutes well-worth watching and enjoying.
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday runs through March 3, 2024, at The Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Suite A, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.thepear.org.