Growing Up In Sarah Ruhl's Neverland
What's the most creative gift you've ever given your mother? For Tony-nominated dramatist Sarah Ruhl, that would probably be her play For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, currently in previews at Playwrights Horizons. Originally penned in honor of her mom's 70th, the show is inspired by Ruhl's own family, their disparate perspectives and beliefs, plus that time their matriarch played the title character in a community theatre production of Peter Pan in Davenport, Iowa.
In prepping the play, Ruhl interviewed her family members, asking each a series of provocative questions including, "Do you pray?" "Do you believe in an afterlife?" And "What is wrong with this country?" "There were no skeletons in the closet, but what was interesting to me was that they all had different ways of getting in," says Ruhl about the methods her relatives used to navigate the choppy waters of dissent without capsizing the family boat. From those conversations and her own imagination, Ruhl drafted a script that she ran by the interviewees for further input -- and their blessing. "It always astonishes me how a family can be so close and yet so different," she says.
Ruhl's play also incorporates some of the metaphor-rich traditions of Japanese Noh theatre, such as iconic scenes, supernatural elements, and a triptych structure. Part one: the adult children of a dying patriarch hold vigil at the hospital. Part two: At home after his passing, they share memories and toast their father, who remains in spirit. Part three: They all go to Neverland, led by the sibling with the most playful nature. "Noh drama has it so right," Ruhl says. "Theatre is the proper place for ghosts."
Themes of youth, aging, death, and family echo throughout the play, which is both painfully realistic and utterly fanciful.