Three generations of women are gathered around a table at the Lucky Platter cafe in Evanston. The daughter, Sarah Ruhl, has written a play for her mother. The mother, Kathleen Ruhl, will star in her daughter's play. And the 11-year-old granddaughter, Anna, will watch the end of the play from the wings later that night. The play, "For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday," is about growing up, growing old and flying straight on till morning, and it's set to open in a few hours with Shattered Globe Theatre.
The Chicago debut, following the premiere directed by Les Waters at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival and the subsequent run at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is directed in a new production by Sarah's longtime collaborator, Jessica Thebus. It is the first production to feature Kathleen playing the role she inspired.
"I had been encouraging my students at Yale to write what I called gift plays," says Sarah, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and MacArthur "genius grant" recipient who grew up in Wilmette, on that recent afternoon at the Lucky Platter. "And I had read this book called 'The Gift' by Lewis Hyde, which I thought was really brilliant and affected the way I think about art-making. It's about functioning within a gift economy rather than a capitalist economy."
Sarah stepped up to the challenge she presented to her students and decided to give her mom a gift, for her 70th birthday, in the form of a play. She wrote a triptych one-act, moving from a dying father's bedside to the land of the boy with an aversion to growing old.
For a playwright who has fashioned worlds where walls materialize from strings, paper houses fall from skies and winter gardens sprout from parlors, a trip from a hospital room to Neverland seems inevitable.
"My sense of what it is to grow up and also my sense of what it is to be in the theater was always intimately bound up with this image of Peter Pan," says Sarah, who never crowed herself but remembers seeing photos of her mother as Peter Pan, including one commemorating a meeting with Mary Martin, displayed in her grandparents' home in Davenport, Iowa. Kathleen, now an Evanston resident, remembers taking flight in high school, and the harness, padded with Kotex to ease the discomfort caused by the thigh-cutting straps. When Martin came to town, the Davenport gang took a look at her apparatus and made some improvements.
Kathleen and Sarah quiz each other on which versions of "Pan" they saw growing up. There was the TV special. Kathleen watched Martin do a one-woman show with some "Pan" songs. They both saw "Finding Neverland."
"I really hesitate to bring this up," says Sarah.
Kathleen looks to Sarah. Anna looks to her iPhone Sudoku. Sarah pauses.
"But didn't we see 'Peter Pan' in the movie theater when I was little?"
Because, Sarah goes on, she thinks she remembers receiving the made-in-the-moment nickname "Tinklebell."
Kathleen chortles. Sarah lets out a tiny chuckle. Anna keeps playing her game.
"It didn't stick," says Kathleen, still laughing.
Sarah grew up in the theater, just as Kathleen did, just as Sarah's children will. Kathleen created a dramaturgical game, after a number of rehearsals and repeat performances, where she would quiz Sarah on which character said a certain line. Now Sarah plays it with Anna. As Sarah was growing up, actors frequented the Ruhls' Wilmette home and she dabbled in acting herself at Piven Theatre Workshop, where Joyce Piven would later direct Ruhl's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" in 1998, at a time when few Chicago theaters were biting.
Kathleen says Sarah was always a writer.
"Before Sarah knew how to write or read, one day I was working on a monologue and she said, 'Oh, Mom,' and she got a yellow legal pad and she said, 'I'll take notes for you.' Because she knew that's what people did," says Kathleen. "And so I did the monologue for her and she had really smart things to say."
For "Peter Pan," Sarah interviewed Kathleen and other family members, probing their own childhood memories and asking a series of questions: What's wrong with the country? Is there an afterlife? Do you pray? How do you feel about your birth order?
"J.M. Barrie has this quote at the beginning (of 'Pan') saying, 'I made this for you, you five, by rubbing you against each other.' And I thought, oh, I must write this then. Because I was writing it for a family of five so it seemed right," says Sarah. "And similarly, J.M. Barrie was turning mythologies from real people into stories, so it felt like this double action."
After receiving some feedback from family, Sarah held a reading of the play in her mom's living room with a group of friends. Kathleen says she paid particular attention to the character crafted in her likeness.
"I thought, oh my God, you made me such an unfeeling pedant, always checking on the etymologies of things," says Kathleen. "And in fact, I guess that is my defense against scary feelings is intellectualizing things."
"Well, you do love etymologies, too," says Sarah, who wasn't sure if her mom would even want to play the role.
"And you probably figured I couldn't fly," adds Kathleen.
Without irony, Sarah says, "I wasn't worried about that at all."
The play is written with characters as numbers — one through five — who create a score of familial crescendos, harmonies and codas. Sarah says the numbers act as an abstraction and lessen individuation. But there's an underlying authenticity in the play-family's frank and multivocal conversations. At one point, Sarah wanted to write a play called "Twelve Fights," a documentation of her family's arguments and continued love and support despite political polarization.
Kathleen shared domestic memories with the cast in early rehearsals. She sees her family's parallels throughout the script. "The more I work with it, the more it amazes me. I mean, I know you know me well, but I think you really, really know me in ways that I probably …."
Sarah looks quietly embarrassed. Or not entirely convinced.
"Well you do! In ways that you can't see yourself. So you see things that are revealing to me."
As lunch winds down, Kathleen finishes up a pot pie, Anna sips a long-awaited cream soda and Sarah, who met at the same restaurant earlier and had already eaten, talks about what's shifted in the Shattered Globe production, which began performances April 6 at Theater Wit.
It's more intimate. There's no flying, as there was at Humana. The audience has to resort to mere imagination. But there is still a living, drooling dog, a little black cocker spaniel that belongs to one of the actors in the production.
Kathleen would eventually like to see a booking of the show in Davenport. In the meantime, the play will head to Playwrights Horizons in New York this summer, again directed by Waters, but without Kathleen.
Sarah says she's trying to avoid being "totally nepotistic."
"And that nepotism part is something that makes me anxious," says Kathleen. "I don't want to be Jackie Kennedy's sister."
"I just feel like, my mom has two Jeff Awards and works in Chicago theater all the time, so that didn't seem strange or nepotistic to me at all," Sarah says about the Shattered Globe casting. "And I thought of Tracy Letts casting his father in 'August: Osage County,' which was really so moving and so wonderful."
In the third movement of the play, Kathleen gets to re-embody Pan in a meta children's-theater re-creation.
"I think that the third part of the play is really about art as an answer to death and the theater as an answer to aging and the world of the imagination as an answer to entropy and disease and despair, really," says Sarah. "So I do think there's something intrinsic about it that's about how the theater is a wormhole through which we can escape our deepest anxieties about dying."
"To the extent that you can be not a conventional grown-up, I think it's a good thing for your children," says Kathleen, who later that night will close the show with the line, "But before I went home, I stayed in the theater for a little while longer. Where you don't have to grow up."
Sarah says she's seen 20-year-olds crying after the play, which surprises her, because she thought she had written a play primarily for an older audience. But the shared preparation for Sarah's final stage direction seems to hit across generations. "A fantastical exit."
Photo : Sarah Ruhl wrote 'For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday' for her mom as a hedge against getting old
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