Flying Over Davenport in For Peter Pan

by Joseph Varga, Scenic Designer for For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday

If ever there was an intriguing title for a play this one is it. Just a bit offbeat, the title suggests some automatic associations in our heads. Many of us have a Peter Pan story somewhere in our background and I’m no exception… but that’s another story. This account is about the design and how it developed. At our first design meeting I told Jen that what I was proposing might seem slightly odd; she just turned to me and said “Please… this is after all a Sarah Ruhl play”. I took that to mean that given this playwright’s penchant for surreal situations, just about anything goes.

Naturally work begins with reading the play. Things, names, places, themes and associations automatically pop out at me as I read. Images also come to mind. The play has a clearly autobiographical aspect, involving memories of specific time and places. We learn that the story mainly takes place in Davenport, Iowa, at the family home. Even the street address is mentioned and, unlike most play scripts this one included a few photos, which made me think that the images were of significance to the author.

I couldn’t help feeling that in addition to the six ostensibly real-life characters, there was a seventh: Davenport itself. Reading along, a painting popped up - we designers tend to carry around large picture libraries in our heads. This time it was the work of one of America’s most iconic artists: Grant Wood. He had painted an Iowa scene showing land, some houses, a river and a bridge. Turns out , it’s a rendition of Stone City, Iowa – but the basic elements of the scene seemed to fit.

So, next I Googled images of Davenport. Among these a graphic design representing the city kept appearing. Very likely this was produced by a professional studio, perhaps hired by the local chamber of commerce for promotional purposes. The image was a collage of Davenport landmarks to suggest the town’s physical identity through the historic span of its architecture.

And that is how the thought possessed me that Davenport should appear onstage, not necessarily as it appears in photographs, but as it appears symbolically. Of course however I do it, the image must be recognizable. That’s why I’ve included the Mississippi River, along with Davenport’s Centennial Bridge, an indispensible local icon.

Fortunately, Ms. Ruhl suggests added imagery as the plot unfolds. And she gives permission to match her surreal musings with stage items that help to illustrate the action. So yes, we’re in the house the characters live in, and we see it from the outside as well. Oh, and since the script mentions it, we also see the Davenport Children’s Theatre. And have I mentioned Peter Pan entering the Darling Nursery? … and let’s not forget the pirate ship. Moreover, we must also consider that aerial effects are to be anticipated. Surely, Peter Pan is going to fly.