Finding Neverland

by Mike Fischer, FTC Advisory Company Member

Forward Theater’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday begins where Forward’s season-opening production of Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane ends: in a hospital room, on the border between life and death. But much like Mary Jane, Ruhl’s Peter Pan is also ultimately a celebration of life.

Five aging adults – closely modeled on Ruhl’s mother and her four younger siblings – have gathered to say goodbye to their beloved 84-year-old father, dying of leukemia. Ruhl herself was at the deathbed vigil for her grandfather, as a 20-something at the beginning of her writing career. Written two decades later, Peter Pan asks whether we ever truly bid farewell to those we love or whether instead they’re made immortal by living on through us – as ghosts bumping into our bodies and haunting our minds, shaping who we are and what we pass on, in the way we create and how we live.

The Shadowlands

“I hold my dead close,” Ruhl said in a 2016 interview. “From a fairly early age I’ve seen the fabric between life and death as a little bit porous.” Her plays bear this out; they’ve been smudging the line between the land of the living and the kingdom of the dead for a long time. To take a few illustrative examples, from Ruhl plays produced here in Wisconsin:

In The Clean House (2004), presented by the Milwaukee Rep in 2005, a Brazilian maid grieving for her parents carries on by remembering how they laughed. In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (2009), movingly rendered by Forward in 2010, a mother suckles another woman’s newborn while mourning the child she’s lost. And in Eurydice (2004), brilliantly staged by American Players Theatre in 2016, a dead father pines for his daughter.

Ruhl has described Eurydice as the sister play to Peter Pan, while noting that this time around she’s focused on the living rather than the dead. We’ll watch this play’s five siblings as they not only honor the memory of their father, but also wonder how they themselves will carry on. The siblings are themselves old enough to take death personally. “Of course I’m afraid of dying,” says one of the five, while sitting around a table with the others, late into the Iowa night. “It’s organized my entire life.”

Which, Ruhl suggests, doesn’t mean death must also rob us of life. It might instead make us better appreciate what it means to live.

Living (it) Up in the Theater

J.M. Barrie was trying to make the same point in Peter Pan (1904) – a play he wrote for another set of five siblings grieving the death of a beloved parent.

The siblings in Ruhl’s play talk about the original Peter Pan, and with good reason: in Ruhl’s play as in real life, Ruhl’s mother – named Ann, here – played Peter in a high school production of Barrie’s Peter Pan. (Talk about life imitating art: Ruhl’s mother, who has been acting in Chicago theaters for most of her adulthood, played Ann in a Chicago production of Ruhl’s Peter Pan).

It’s therefore no surprise that we’ll see Ann champion theater as a means of cheating death. Ann tells her siblings she’s not sure she believes in religion. But she simultaneously explains why she “religiously” believes that the magic on stage – right down to its pixies and fairies – is real.

Theater is Ann’s Neverland: a place where she’s forever young and time becomes irrelevant. It’s a place in which her father still lives, because no one there ever truly dies. “Dreams and art create a boundary-crossing” between the living and the dead, Ruhl once said, in an interview discussing the death of a poet she’d loved who died much too young.

No wonder so many Ruhl plays involve ritual – from the great religious spectacles she commemorates in her epic Passion Play (2005) to the prayer and song through which the siblings in our play mark their father’s passing. “I’m interested in how our secular contemporary theater can still feel ghosts, feel God, or at least feel human beings longing for God,” Ruhl said in that same interview.

A Communion of Saints

When we go to the theater and sit together in the dark, we don’t just temporarily put aside the busy nothings dominating our blueprint lives. In our best theater experiences, we also escape our bodies and ourselves, no longer defeated by all that divides us. We can imagine and actually experience a more perfect union, in a space where we can rediscover what it means to listen. Learn. Laugh. And love.

There’s a reason that Ruhl devotes considerable attention in Peter Pan to the suddenly radical proposition that five people might have conversations in which they freely disagree about nearly everything while nevertheless fiercely loving one another. In a time when even families are increasingly unable to discuss politics and religion, these siblings discuss both.

Might they be showing us a way toward a Neverland in which we treat each other with the familial care and concern that these siblings demonstrate?

Is it too much to imagine our community as a loving family writ large, in which we might passionately debate how we feel about art and politics as well as life and death?

Might we emerge from each such encounter with greater respect and love for our neighbors as well as a stronger sense of the divinity within each of us?

Might we thereby cheat death, (al)together?

The Greeks thought so, as their theory and practice of theater attests. More than two millennia ago, theater enabled the Greeks to frame and debate the issues of the day while forging connections between everyday earthly concerns and the divine.

Their ghosts are among the many spirits here with us in the theater today. They’re patiently waiting for us in the rafters. If we willingly suspend disbelief, we may even see them, hovering above us. And if we can truly believe in theater’s magic, we might even learn how to fly so that we can embrace them.

– Milwaukee, October 2019