Like most of our popular entertainments, live theater in our culture has a bias toward the young.
This might seem like a contrary statement, given that older audiences are the folks who tend to keep the theater alive nationwide, but that same makeup is unfortunately not reflected on the stage itself. Most plays, whether musicals, comedies, or dramas, feature mostly 20- and 30-somethings, with a few older characters thrown in for variety. Rarely do we see a show that features an older cast tackling issues relevant to older people.
Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” is a distinct exception to that rule. Written as a present for Ruhl’s mother, who as a youth had assayed the titular role in a local production of “Peter Pan,” the play tackles the complexities of growing up, a reality of life that J.M. Barrie's creation fought so hard against.
“For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” — playing through March 10 at the Trinity Street Playhouse courtesy of a new mounting from Jarrott Productions — features a family of five siblings gathered at their father’s deathbed, dealing with their grief, meditating on the past, debating the nature of aging, and trying to avoid getting into political arguments. First performed in 2016 — during the presidential election but before its results — the play is wisely set during the 1990s, allowing Ruhl to comment on the ways in which politics can divide families without litigating contemporary issues.
Instead, the play focuses on larger, universal themes, teasing apart the things that both unite and divide these five siblings. The first two-thirds of the play manage this the best, featuring realistic conversations between the family that smoothly glide between nostalgic reminiscence, gentle humor and deeply felt probing into what it means to be a “grown up.”
The final third of the play, though, occurs in something of a dreamscape that mashes up the family with the adventures of Peter Pan, Wendy and the Lost Boys. Though charming, playful and whimsical, the scene does tend to get long-winded, and is not nearly as interesting or revelatory as the earlier scenes of natural conversation.
As protagonist Ann (and later as Peter Pan), Janelle Buchanan anchors the play with straightforward charm and youthful energy, mirrored and contrasted in varying ways by the rest of her family (played by David R. Jarrott, Mick D’Arcy, Garry Peters, Anne Hulsman and Tom Swift). Director Karen Jambon keeps the production rather simple, allowing the talented cast of seasoned actors to control the energy of the stage and the pace of the story, thus centering the entirety of the action on the family itself.
Even though its finale drags a bit, “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” is a warm-hearted, loving tribute to the importance of family, and on the ways in which that concept is tested as siblings age and parents pass on to Neverland.
(“For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” plays at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday through March 10 at Trinity Street Playhouse, inside the first Baptist Church of Austin at 901 Trinity St. $23-$25. With mature themes and language, this play is not recommended for anyone younger than 14.)