Chicago Theatre Review
Clap Your Hands if You Believe
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday – Shattered Globe
Sarah Ruhl, the distinguished and celebrated, two-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright, has followed up her most famous works with a play that feels very personal and truly touches audiences of a certain age with sadness. Ruhl is known for such noteworthy and provocative plays as “The Clean House,” “Eurydice,” “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and her Broadway debut with “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play).” This 85-minute one-act debuted at Berkley Rep and was heralded at the Human Festival in Louisville. It deals with such themes as aging, death and what it means to be a family. The playwright focuses on five siblings, now in their 50’s and 60’s, at the deathbed of their father, George. Their mother has passed years ago and the brothers and sisters are struggling with their conflicting emotions of wanting their dad to miraculously recover (which they know isn’t likely) and a guilty wish for their father to simply let go and end the misery of his prolonged suffering.
The play opens on a proscenium stage with Anne, the eldest daughter (beautifully portrayed here by the playwright’s own mother, Kathleen Ruhl), standing before a red theatrical curtain, reminiscing about her favorite memory with her father. Anne speaks directly to the audience, poignantly recalling the time, back in their home state of Iowa, when, as a child, she played Peter Pan. It was a life-changing production for Anne at the Davenport Children’s Theatre. That was the one time in her life that her dad made her feel special, bringing her a bouquet of flowers to celebrate her amateur theatrical success.
Immediately the curtains part to reveal a hospital room where Anne, her sister Wendy, and her brothers Michael, John and Jim are standing vigil at their dying father’s bedside. As the hours pass, they discuss their dad’s prognosis, argue about politics, watch a football game on TV and, eventually, say good-by to George as he leaves this world.
The scene quickly shifts to the family kitchen, where, over a bottle of Jameson’s, the siblings share their divergent views about the current political scene, their respective chosen professions and the Catholic religion that shaped their lives. They devote considerable time debating the possibility of an afterlife, recalling fond childhood memories and explaining the moment when each of the siblings knew he had become a grownup. All during this conversation which is liberally lubricate by the whiskey, the memory of their father joins them, sitting silently at the table as a kind of ghostly onlooker. George even brings out the family dog, a sweet-faced cocker spaniel named Ophelia, quietly joining them in memory.
As the siblings retire, probably for the last time in their old family home, Anne’s refusal to grow up and eventually pass on manifests itself as a fantasy. She once more becomes Peter Pan, with Wendy, John and Michael as the Darling children, and Jim as Captain Hook. Thanks to Jack Magaw’s simplistic scenic design, enhanced by Michael Stanfill’s animated projections, Shelley Strasser’s atmospheric lighting and original music and sound design by Christopher Kriz, the children seem to fly, soaring off to Neverland and doing battle with their arch enemy. In Anne’s mind, the audience’s collective magic makes Peter Pan immortal and this is demonstrated as they clap their hands to bring the boy-who-could-fly and girl-who-would-be-Pan back to life.
The cast is very good, thanks to expert direction by Jessica Thebus, bringing humor and honesty to their roles and seamlessly making the jump between reality, memory and fantasy. Eileen Niccolai is feisty younger sister Wendy, H. B. Ward portrays a stogie John, Patrick Thornton makes a childlike Michael and Ben Werling’s Jim easily morphs into antagonist Captain Hook. Doug McDade is excellent as George, believably playing both the dying father and the younger, more vibrant version of the man he once was. And, of course, Ophelia steals every one of her scenes, even when she’s flying through the air as Nana.
This memory play, which seems a very personal catharsis for the playwright, will especially speak to more mature theatergoers. Baby boomers, in particular, will identify with the thoughts and emotions expressed by the six characters in this play, particularly as portrayed by Shattered Globe’s fine ensemble cast of actors. With sensitivity and lyrical beauty, Sarah Ruhl’s language and strong, realistic characters create an emotional portrait of an inevitable event we must all eventually face. But if audiences believe it’s possible to become immortal, all they have to do is clap their hands.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 6-May 20 by Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.