It’s a familiar scene in contemporary theater: A family gathers around the death bed, or for the funeral, of an important family member, and long-held secrets surface. Conflict ensues.
Acclaimed playwright Sarah Ruhl (“In the Next Room,” “Eurydice” and more) turns that trope on its head in her latest play, “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday,” which premiered at Actors Theatre of Louisville in March and is now onstage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a stellar production.
Louisville artistic director Les Waters (formerly on Berkeley Rep’s artistic staff as well as Ruhl’s longtime collaborator) is at the helm.
In the 90-minute, three-scene play, five siblings — who get along just fine despite differences in political opinions and, to some extent, lifestyles — have converged in their hometown in Iowa, in the hospital room of their dying father (Ron Crawford).
The central figure, Ann (the wonderful Kathleen Chalfant), is the oldest at 70 but somehow feels the least adult. As a kid, she appeared in a local production of “Peter Pan,” not coincidentally about a boy who refused to grow up, and she has the crumpled old program, and the wonderful memory of flying onstage, to prove it.
The youngest, the New Age-y Wendy (the equally wonderful Ellen McLaughlin), is at peace with the world.
Two of the brothers (Keith Reddin and the especially impressive David Chandler) are doctors who tend toward snarky; Charles Shaw Robinson plays the gentler third. The relationships are so relaxed that you not only completely believe that these are brothers and sisters—you may also want to join their family.
By the end of the first scene — into which Waters wisely inserts the kind of long, silent pauses that naturally occur in these situations — Dad has died.
In the middle scene, in the dining room of the siblings’ childhood home — designed in perfect 1950s style by Annie Smart, complete with plaid drapes and maple table — the siblings drink whiskey and reminisce; there’s a potentially provocative but underdeveloped touch of magical realism and too much banal chatter, so it’s the weakest scene.
But there’s also plenty of affecting dialogue, as the siblings discuss the nature of emotional growth and aging, and fear of death.
The third scene is a funny and fantastical dream sequence, but no spoilers here. Ruhl’s warm-hearted play, conflict-free as it is in terms of plot and relationships, for the most part, is endearing.
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre,2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m., most Sundays, closes July 3
Tickets: $29 to $73
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org