116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — As the title suggests, “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” is not child’s play, nor is it a play for children. But it will strike a chord with adults who have been children and still are children at heart when they search through their memories at life’s most trying times.
This Theatre Cedar Rapids production runs May 13 to 29 on the outdoor stage at Brucemore. It was blanket-chilly during a recent evening rehearsal, but should feel like shorts-summer this weekend.
Marty Norton of Robins, who just turned 70, is thrilled to step into the title role, after she and a group of theater friends saw the show a couple of years ago in Wisconsin.
“It’s for older people that have experienced life,” she said, adding that perhaps teenagers, but not children, would enjoy it.
A play in three movements, it opens with five adult siblings, ranging in age from 50s to 70, who are gathered around their father’s hospital deathbed.
In the second movement, they gather at their family home to drink whiskey and reminisce about their late father, their youth, their relationships and how all of those continue to influence their adult choices. Their father appears as a ghost on the periphery, and early on, gives them a sign they don’t readily realize, but the audience will enjoy.
It’s the first time veteran actor Steve Weiss, 73, of Cedar Rapids, has played dead.
“I’m really actually enjoying the hell out of this, for two reasons,” he said. “I get to do something I’ve never done before.
“And while I’m lying there waiting to pass away, the theater knowledge and timing that I’m learning from all y’all is, it’s just amazing,” he said, pointing to the rest of the cast members who are coming in for rehearsal. “In the second movement, I’m just a ghost, and I don’t have any lines. I interact spiritually. Once again it’s a knowledge-building thing.”
The third movement involves a trip to Neverland, where these grown-up siblings embody the fairy-tale characters, and Weiss gets to watch the action.
The play is designed to run seamlessly between movements, and doesn’t stop for an intermission.
“It’s funny, and it’s sweet, and it’s political, but this family loves each other,” Norton said of the show. “They love each other so much, but they still can disagree on all sorts of levels. You just don’t get a show like that.”
It’s also not a musical. It’s playwright Sarah Ruhl’s love letter to her mother, actress Kathleen Ruhl, who played Peter Pan time after time at the Davenport Children’s Theatre. As in Davenport, Iowa.
What: “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday”
Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids at Brucemore’s outdoor Peggy Boyle Whitworth Amphitheater, 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: 7:30 p.m. May 13 to 29, with no intermission
Extras: The site opens 6:30 p.m. for parking and picnics; bring seating, food and beverages.
Tickets: $25 adult, $15 youth/student, theatrecr.org/event/for-peter-pan-on-her-70th-birthday-2/2022-05-13/
In the play, Kathleen has been renamed Ann, and in real life, she starred in her daughter’s play when it premiered in April 2017 at The Shattered Globe in Chicago.
That theater’s name foreshadows Brucemore’s setting. Those who go will find this area drastically changed, even from last year’s performances, as derecho cleanup continues on the historic estate in southeast Cedar Rapids.
Almost all of the trees behind the audience area and around the Duck Pond are gone. Those that have majestically stood sentinel behind the stage are showing their storm scars even more dramatically.
It’s still a magical place to stage a magical play — especially in the third movement where the adults act out Neverland.
It’s an intimate piece, where most of the actors stay onstage throughout, which makes it different from the usual Brucemore outdoor fare, where actors enter and exit through the grounds and around the pond.
“But we’re making it work out here,“ said director David Morton, 58, of Cedar Rapids, a veteran of numerous shows on the outdoor stage. It also helps that he’s the estate’s landscape curator, so he knows the grounds like no other.
“I think what helps add to the piece is the magical place of Brucemore. We’ve tried to incorporate the scenery with a few things,” he said. “ … We’re letting actors come in from the audience. And Hook comes from around the tree.”
“In days of yore, when you would make an entrance from the back, you could walk clear around the pond and no one could see you,” Norton added. “It doesn’t take in the grounds like most of the shows that are done here do, but anytime you can do a show at Brucemore, it’s magic.”
The show is densely layered, Norton added.
“It’s like peeling an onion,” she said. “There’s layers and layers, and we’re still making discoveries. And we will until it’s done, and we will in the future because it’s gonna stay with us. I love her writing. She’s magical. And her timelines are wonky. Don’t ever do the math, because it’s not ever going to come out. But it doesn't matter. Somebody called it ‘Ruhlian Theory.’ It's her.
“She turns things sideways, and it works. It doesn’t matter that you can’t be that old and have done that then. Because it creates its own timeline,” Norton said.
“I think everybody’s gonna find something to relate to in this piece,” Morton said. “And there’s so many ways you could go with it. Sometimes you second guess yourself as a director, ‘Gosh, is that the right choice?’ But I think you have to trust the material.”
The source material is something that has spoken to Norton since she was about 7 years old, so when she discovered this version through online theater sites, she couldn’t wait for the chance to see it somewhere and maybe actually be in it.
“I’ve had this thing with Peter Pan from the time I was little when we used to watch it every year, and you would get to have popcorn in the living room,” she said. “And the first time I think I saw it, the next day I tried to fly off the roof of our house. We had a flat roofed house. And my mom goes, ‘I thought you were smarter than that.’ But I was so taken with the whole thing. I didn’t ever try that again. But I watched it every year.”
Now she finally has her chance to soar.
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