By Michael Buzzelli
As her father (Patrick Conner) lay dying, Ann (Clare Fraley) reflects on her life in Sarah Ruhl’s “For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday.”
Ann muses over a crossword puzzle in her father’s hospital room. She is joined by her sister, Wendy (Renee Kern) and her brothers, Jim (Art DeConciliis), John (Andy Cornelius) and Michael (Rick Bryant) as they prepare for their father’s final moments.
She fondly recalls her time on the stage, playing Peter Pan in a local production of the show and remembering her father’s visit to the stage after the show. It’s a precious childhood memory embedded in her mind that – suddenly – bubbles to the surface as she stands over his deathbed.
When Father dies, things get weird – in the best possible way.
Petty arguments about politics arise around the table as the family mourns the loss of their patriarch. While Father is physically gone, his presence on his adult children is strong. Maybe even overwhelming.
Director Helga Terre pulls great performances out of all of the actors.
Fraley delivers a deliciously neurotic character with many flaws, bringing Ann to life as she learns to accept death. Her portrayal is both hilarious and heartbreaking.
DeConciliis does a magnificent job. While Jim is stuck in a holding pattern of bald, boring doctor with a hard on for Reaganomics, James, however, is preening, vainglorious villain with a curly black mane. The juxtaposition of two wildly different characters is deftly handled by DeConciliis.
Conner is a true joy here. He has very few lines but silently chews the sparse scenery. While Father is a figurative puppeteer of family events, Conner is a literal one when he brings out the family dog.
You have to see it to believe it.
Mild spoiler alert: Father dies in the first act, but Conner gets to keep playing the character as the show goes on.
“For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday” starts strong, has a saggy middle but finishes in a wildly inventive way. The middle section is bogged down with politics and religion. In this case the subject is dull rather than taboo. It would have been more preferable to learn more about the brothers and sisters and their unique idiosyncrasies than to discuss politics from the mid-90s.
In the second act, however, the play explodes in a surreal Geritol-infused dream sequence.
Things gets meta.
Ann becomes Peter Pan (complex and all), her sister Wendy becomes Wendy, brothers John and Michael play John and Michael, but her brother Jim is cast as Captain James Hook. Yes, their names are “too on the nose, ” but we can let Ruhl off the hook.
Speaking of Hook, Barbara Burgess-Lefebrve’s costumes are wonderful, especially the ones in the second act.
Center stage is mostly bare, but the Darling bedroom resides in the corner of the theater. Tucker Topel’s scenic design work on the bedroom is a classic. It’s somehow reminiscent of every version of the bedroom seen in film, TV and stage.
Peter Pan, both then and now, is about not wanting to face adult responsibilities. Ruhl has a clever spin on a classic, despite the saggy middle. If the conversation about the father bores, watch the character playing Father. It’s marvelously entertaining.
Contemplating our inevitable trip to the grave is a scary subject, but “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” makes the journey palatable.
“For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday” runs from June 15 to June 25 at Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive, Canonsburg, PA 15317. For more information, please click here.