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BY DAVID KENNERLEY | More often than not, theatrical meditations on mortality tend to be dismal affairs. But red-hot playwright Sarah Ruhl, who has earned plaudits for plays such as “Stage Kiss” and “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” has solved the problem in her latest effort by expertly grafting on elements of the beloved children’s story “Peter Pan,” injecting a fantastic dose of whimsy while embracing the tale’s dark undercurrents.
“For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday,” now at Playwrights Horizons, is set in Davenport, Iowa, in the 1990s and in timeless Neverland. The first part features a protracted, tense scene in a hospital room, where an elderly father lies on his deathbed, attached to a web of monitors and drips, surrounded by his five doting offspring.
The siblings have put their lives on hold to stand vigil by their dying father (Ron Crawford). Ann, portrayed by the legendary, luminous Kathleen Chalfant, may be the oldest chronologically — she’s pushing 70 — but not emotionally. Her fondest memory is playing the role of Peter Pan as a teenager, and she still identifies with the boy, sharing not only his love of flying but also his refusal to grow up.
John (Daniel Jenkins) is a college professor, while Jim (David Chandler) and Michael (Keith Reddin) are doctors who have followed in footsteps of their father, a local pediatrician back in the day. The youngest, Wendy (Lisa Emery), the apple of her father’s eye, appears particularly distraught over the dire circumstances. “Peter Pan” aficionados will notice that these names match those of key characters in the book.
The achingly poignant drama finds poetry in the peculiar dynamic of a family reunion, studded with reminiscences of key childhood moments anyone can relate to. Occasionally, each of the old man’s children reverts to their role when growing up, stirring old rivalries and recriminations.
Under the resourceful direction of Les Waters, the characters are richly drawn and expertly portrayed. Ann is based on Ruhl’s mother, who actually played Peter Pan in her youth, and some of the dialogue is lifted from interviews with her extended family. The lead role is tailor-made for Chalfant, whose mischievous grin and sprightly demeanor conjures Peter Pan even before she dons the famous green tights, tunic, and feathered cap.
Arguing is a family sport. The siblings spar about politics, religion, afterlife, and euthanasia. By liberally upping the dose of their dad’s morphine, is it murder or simply palliative care? “It’s about staying ahead of the pain,” says Jim defensively. Ann recalls an earlier trauma putting down the ailing family dog. The pooch, played by Macy, who starred in the recent touring production of “Annie,” makes several heartwarming, ghostly appearances and hits all of her marks. After their father finally takes his last breath, the siblings breathe a sigh of relief.
The second part finds the family at a large dining table at the family homestead, holding an Irish wake — drinking Jameson’s whiskey, cracking jokes, and trying find solace in their shared experience.
“I pride myself somehow on not growing up,” Ann says, equating that with being “programmed” and “ossified.” Michael’s mantra used to be “immortality through immaturity.”
In the final part — a metatheatrical fantasia set in their childhood bedroom and a warped version of Neverland — the siblings play roles in an otherworldly production of “Peter Pan.” Tinker Bell is there and so is Captain James Hook, embodied with dastardly panache by Chandler. They discover the Lost Boys and the Jolly Roger.
And yes, there is an abundant amount of jubilant flying involved. To this tenderly affecting drama’s credit, the cables miraculously disappear in our imaginations, and we are convinced the fairy dust is real.
Runtime: 90 minutes, no intermission. Through Oct. 1 at Playwrights Horizons (416 W. 42nd St., btw. Ninth & 10th Aves.). Tues.–Sat. at 7:30pm; Sun. at 7pm; Sat.–Sun. at 2pm. For tickets ($59-$99), visit ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4900. Artist info at visit playwrightshorizons.org.