If you were watching For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday through a lens, it would be set to soft focus. There’s a feathery moire effect around the edges of Sarah Ruhl’s memory play. Kathleen Chalfant is the 70-year-old Ann who, as a girl, played Peter Pan in her small town theater. Chalfant’s commanding, husky voice is a welcome antidote to the mist of sentiment that rains down on the story like so much fairy dust.
[jump] The performance I saw began with an uncomfortable jolt. After the obligatory pointing out of exit signs and a reminder to turn off our cell phones, Chalfant stepped out from behind the closed curtain within seconds of the announcement. Her first line is “Hello” and the audience, believing she wanted to have an informal chat with us, responded with a “Hello” of their own. Visibly surprised, she moved her head to the right in a physical and psychic effort to dodge the response.
Chalfant recovered and delivered her opening monologue without pause. This informal tone in Ruhl’s dialogue allows the playwright to deliver clever sleights of hand that other, less inventive playwrights, couldn’t pull off. But the supporting cast’s delivery of her everyday conversations often felt clenched in the throat or otherwise withheld. It wasn’t that Chalfant dominated the proceedings; it simply felt like the other actors wouldn’t stand up to her onstage presence. The play’s energy ebbed away because of their professional respect or deference.
Ann may be the narrator and protagonist of For Peter Pan but the story concerns five siblings assembled at their dying father’s hospital bed. As the youngest of five brothers and sisters myself, the family here is mightily self-contained in comparison. Every family drama needn’t dwell in the wilds of infidelity, suicide and potential incest like Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. But Ruhl has set this particular family’s arguments on a slow boil and neglects to raise the temperature.
Since the story concerns the death of a parent, there’s a built-in expectation that the family’s reactions will be shaded with complexity. But the contours of grief here are only touched upon lightly. Instead of sobs and reproaches, Ann longs for the pivotal memory of her youth, when her father attended one of her performances as Peter Pan. All of her siblings briefly fumble with their parental memories, but because of her theatrical past, Ann’s imagination is singled out.
Her fixation on the past, of reliving her childhood fantasy of flight, fills out the final sequence of the play. In Ann’s dream, each one of her siblings is transformed into a Peter Pan character. The play is restaged with all of the adults regressing to their childhood roles. After the quotidian settings of the hospital and in the family house, Ruhl unleashes a welcome element of magic that had been hinted at earlier, but subtly, as if in a barely audible sigh.
It’s the reenactment of Ann’s dream of flight that should feel liberating. This is how she’ll grieve her father’s death, not with sorrow, but with the joyful feeling of donning a hat and matching green stockings. But Ruhl tamps down Ann’s — and her siblings’ — rough edges, so that when she finally defies gravity and takes to the sky, the ending feels sweet but emotionally blunted and blurred. For Peter Pan diminishes both the presence of Hook’s villainy, a stand-in for the threat of death, and thereby the poignancy of Ann’s willful refusal to grow up. Her emotions glitter like flakes of gold in the spotlight then fall fast as they scatter and disappear across the stage floor.
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-647-2949.