Shattered Globe Theatre welcomes back one of Chicago’s own, Sarah Ruhl. “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” is a new play making its Midwestern debut at Theater Wit. Ms. Ruhl is one of the country’s foremost playwrights right now. She has another new play, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” currently running at the Lincoln Center in New York. Her work is often produced in Chicago usually directed by her friend Jessica Thebus. This is an especially personal production for Ruhl as it stars her own mother (Kathleen Ruhl) in the title role.
No, this is not another warmed over incantation of the JM Barrie fairy tale. While somewhat influenced by the source material, “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” is a very realistic story of five siblings grappling with the death of their father. What begins in a depressing hospital room, moves to a whiskey-soaked conversation between siblings that eventually turns into a make-believe version of Peter Pan.
At its core, this is a play about love. There are plenty of plays about dysfunctional families, and this isn’t one of them. What it boils down to are five adult children trying to pinpoint a time when they felt their father’s love. These siblings have differing political beliefs and Ruhl’s apt commentary about our current climate is especially sharp, without being polarizing. There’s a great deal of truth in the courtesy her characters show for one another’s opinions. She also spends a great deal of the play dissecting the role of Catholicism and whether or not there is an afterlife. Despite the volley of bittersweet and at times painful memories of their childhood, these characters love each other and that is felt in the dialogue and performances.
Kathleen Ruhl is adorable as the oldest sister and former Peter Pan star, Ann. Perhaps it’s her relation to the playwright, or her commitment to character, but Kathleen Ruhl makes the audience question how much of this work is fiction and how much is fact? Eileen Niccolai, a Shattered Globe ensemble member, provides a lot of the humor, but also some of the more heartfelt moments as youngest sister Wendy. All the siblings are named for Peter Pan characters, which underscores Sarah Ruhl’s point that with their parents gone, they are orphans now and need to grow up.
Like any Sarah Ruhl work, there is a great deal of whimsy. With each new work, Ruhl continues to keep one foot on the ground and one in the clouds. “For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday” is both prolific in its subject matter and also aesthetically striking it its presentation. The reality of the situation and the poignancy of the lines allows the audience to trust their narrator and fly when the time comes.
Shattered Globe’s “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday is being performed at Theater Wit at 1229 W Belmont (773.975.8150) through May 20th.
In a Sam Shepard play, rarely are things what they seem. His 1980 play "True West" is no exception. Under the direction of James Yost, Shattered Globe Theatre tackles this modern classic. "True West" is often considered part of a family saga by Shepard that includes his 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner "Buried Child."
Austin and Lee are two brothers who couldn't be more different. Austin (Kevin Viol) is an upstanding writerly type who we first meet hunched over a typewriter in his mother's kitchen. Lee (Joseph Wiens) is his hulking older brother with a checkered past. Austin is working on a script in his mother's house while she's on vacation. Hoping for some peace and quiet, he's interrupted by Lee whom he hasn't seen in five years. Over the course of Act I, we watch as Lee and Austin battle for superiority through frustratingly inane questions. The moment of reckoning comes when Lee highjacks Austin's meeting with an important Hollywood executive.
What the play points to in American culture is that bullies win. Bullies get what they want and being a polite makes you weak. This theme couldn't be more relevant as we look to a certain unpresidential candidate running for president this year. No matter how much evolution we have to the contrary, human nature is that the strongest eat first. Austin and Lee can be interpreted as two parts of the same mind. Shepard often opines on the perception of masculinity. "True West" explores the duality we all possess.
There's a special place in Chicago's theater community for "True West." It was one of the first out-of-town successes of a then fledgling theater company, The Steppenwolf. Gary Sinese and John Malkovich starred in the principal roles. It transferred off-Broadway in 1984 and helped establish The Steppenwolf as one of the best regional theaters in America.
Director James Yost's vision for this show is faithful. The set by Greg Pinsoneault drops us right into 1980. Sarah Jo White's costumes are also very authentic. Performances are this production's strongest asset. Kevin Viol's breakdown between Act I and II is hilarious. While Joseph Weins' character stays mostly static throughout the play, his commitment to the grossness of extreme masculinity echos Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalksi. Shattered Globe's production of "True West" shows their knack for bringing topical themes to classic works.
Through Oct 22nd. Shattered Globe Theatre. 1229 W Belmont Ave. www.theaterwit.com