Charles Shaw Robinson (John), left, and Kathleen Chalfant (Ann) in Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

“To die will be an awfully big adventure.” ― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Sarah Ruhl’s evocative For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday, now playing at Berkeley Rep, is a heartfelt tribute to family and the ways in which loved ones may ease the pain and loneliness of aging and mortality. With some humor and a light touch, ideas about life and death are illustrated and explored. Although it’s a 90-minute, one-act play, For Peter Pan, seems to have been created along the lines of a traditional three-act-play, with a brief prologue and three distinct sections.

In the short prologue, Ann (talented Kathleen Chalfant, House of Cards, Wit) steps in front of the curtain and explains to the audience that, as a youngster, she had starred in Peter Pan in Davenport, Iowa, and met Mary Martin once as she passed through town. Ann remembers her busy physician father making time to attend her performances. This explanation helps us appreciate how Ann’s formative experience acting in Peter Pan deepened her relationship with her father and affected her concept of growing up and growing old. Without this, For Peter Pan, might seem disjointed.

Left to right: Kathleen Chalfant (Ann), David Chandler (Jim), Charles Shaw Robinson (John), Ellen McLaughlin (Wendy) and Keith Reddin (Michael) in For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday. Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The first scene takes place in the hospital room of Ann’s father, as Ann and her siblings await their elderly father’s demise (Ron Crawford). Ann with sibs John (David Chandler, Wendy, (Ellen McLaughlin), Michael (Keith Reddin) and Jim (Charles Shaw Robinson) talk about euthanasia, God and politics, in between reminiscences about their shared childhood. Since we already know the drama’s connection to Peter Pan, the three siblings’ names are not a surprise.

After a misplaced musical interlude during the set change, with their father now dead, the siblings, aided by whiskey and melancholy, hold an unofficial wake at their father’s home. Although as adults their personalities, politics and interests have diverged greatly, their childhood bonds and shared experiences bring comfort and love.

While they discuss their ideas about an afterlife, their father’s ghost and the ghost of a long dead family pet wander in and out of the set. For Ruhl, loved ones remain alive as long as they are remembered. In one tender scene, Ann’s father brings her flowers after her Peter Pan performance, and tells her how proud he is of her. Whether this scene is based on Ann’s wish for an expression of her father’s love or her actual experience, it’s a moment daughters yearn for.

Ann has a surreal dream about Neverland in the third act. The unexpectedly whimsical set, costumes and acting lighten the mood and lighten our hearts. Even in Ann’s dream, the sibs do not wish to stay in Neverland forever. What a creative and ingenious way Ruhl has found to help us accept the reality of growing old.

Sarah Ruhl wrote this play as a gift for her mother’s 70th birthday. The character of Ann is modeled after Ruhl’s mother, who, as an actor who actually played the lead in Peter Pan. And so the dying man in the hospital room, must represents Ann’ father (the playwright’s grandfather). I imagine that is why For Peter Pan is set during the Clinton administration (note references to Slick Willie, Crossfire, etc.), but it was a bit confusing.

Incidentally, having fathers die on stage, seems to be a trend at Berkeley Rep this season. In Julia Cho’s poetic drama, Aubergine, the father also succumbs on stage accompanied by haunting death rattles.

This successful production is Ruhl’s fifth at Berkeley Rep and the fifth one excellently directed by Les Waters. They are a fabulous team. Eurydice ; In the Next Room, or the vibrator play; Three Sisters, and Dear Elizabeth are Ruhl’s other productions you may have seen in Berkeley. Eurydice was written in conjunction with the death of Ruhl’s father, and now, with For Peter Pan, the death of another father is examined in a completely new and imaginative way.

For Peter Pan is playing at Berkeley Rep through July 3. For information and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...