A little fairy dust: Evanston actor Kathleen Ruhl, center, revisits a role she played as a teen in “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday,” written by her daughter and running at Theater Wit in Chicago April 6 - May 20. Submitted photo

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Nothing touches a mother like a child’s gift of his or her work. The toddler’s smudged drawing, the beginning reader’s phonetically spelled greeting are a mom’s pure gold.  

So Kathleen Ruhl’s birthday present – a play created for and about her by her daughter, a celebrated playwright – may be the ultimate, the ne plus ultra of gifts.

With “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday,” MacArthur Genius, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Tony Award nominee Sarah Ruhl addresses her mother’s anxieties around this milestone birthday, wrapping them in a drama about family, the passage of time, mortality – and the magic of make-believe.

Sarah’s mother, Kathleen, now 74 and an Evanston resident, will be playing Peter Pan with Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit in Chicago tonight through May 20.

In addition to being an apt metaphor, the tale of the boy who flies off to perpetual childhood in Neverland has real-life resonance for both Ruhls. “I grew up seeing pictures of my mother all over the house flying, in green tights,” Sarah said in an interview with her mother for
the publication American Theatre. Kathleen’s star turn as Peter Pan during her junior and senior years of high school in Davenport, Iowa, capped years of play-acting that began when her mother enrolled her in Iowa Children’s Theatre in third grade.

For Kathleen, chafed by a primitive harness that barely got her off the floor, the initial stage flights were uncomfortable. But the images took wing in Sarah’s imagination. “My early love of the theatre was formed in the crucible of my mother’s flight, as it existed in memory,” Sarah said in the same interview.

Though the notion of a play as a gift was rather new to Sarah, she learned in the interview with Kathleen that her maternal grandmother was “famous in Davenport, Iowa,” for composing poems for every occasion.

It is Kathleen’s family – five siblings, including two doctors, three Republicans, and one teacher of rhetoric – who gather around the hospital bed of their dying father in Act I of “For Peter Pan.” The scene is drawn from life; Kathleen says Sarah was old enough to be present when her grandfather died.

In the play’s dialogue, Kathleen says, “I noticed certain locutions typical of my brothers.” In fact, their conversation grew in part out of a series of questions Sarah gave each family member to answer separately. In the above interview, Sarah said the questionnaire allowed her to touch on subjects she would not normally have discussed with family, such as God, prayer, the afterlife, and the health of the country.

Recent family gatherings have been so constrained by members’ sensitivity to political differences, Kathleen says, that “it was nice to see us talking in the play in an intimate way.” Act II follows the characters to the wake, and though the word is mum, Act III may be touched with the fantasy and magic for which the young playwright is known.

“For Peter Pan” was commissioned by and premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., last spring before going on to Berkeley Repertory Theatre in the summer. Kathleen and one brother saw it in Louisville and “didn’t find it weird to see ourselves portrayed by other actors. Maybe that makes us weird,” she laughs.

But the finished play provoked varied reactions from family members. “One brother couldn’t wait to bring his friends,” Kathleen says. “One brother was worried the depiction of his character might hurt his business. One brother took a writerly approach,” composing a speech his niece incorporated. “My sister,” Kathleen says, “took a dim view.”

As for Kathleen, she says the first time she read the play, she thought, ”Sarah has made me such an unfeeling pedant – someone with an unnatural interest in etymology.” Her daughter was surprised when she complained, and Kathleen later acknowledged, “That is my defense – to be over-intellectual.”

Pan was the first of many roles in Kathleen’s lifelong career as an actor. “Acting was always there,” she says. She majored in theater at Smith College, then moved to Chicago, where she says she began “off-Loop when that was new.” While at University of Chicago doing Shakespeare outdoors in the old Court Theatre, she entered a U of C Master of Arts in Teaching program in English. Afterwards, she taught several years in the Chicago City College system, moonlighting as an actor.

Kathleen and Patrick Ruhl married, settled in Wilmette, and had Kate and then in 1974, Sarah. Kathleen continued to act in and direct various North Shore productions. Sometime after Sarah’s birth, Kathleen began having panic attacks. Because of her performance anxiety, she says, “acting became difficult, but I soldiered through.” Enrolling in Theatre Games at Evanston’s Piven Theatre Workshop “helped some,” she says. Then she began teaching English and theater at Regina Dominican High School and says, ”I was just too busy to act.”

In a 2008 New Yorker profile Sarah exposes her family as “wonderful.” She describes a household long on creativity and short on rules, where Kathleen, whom Sarah calls “vivid,” would come to dinner “doing the maid’s speech from Ionesco’s ‘Bald Soprano’” and the girls were allowed to forfeit good manners once a week on Pig Night.

Kathleen says on car trips she “tried to get them thinking in analogies” or asked them to recite a line from a character. Patrick Ruhl died in 1994 when Sarah was 20, but not before he passed along his fascination with words, Sarah told the New Yorker. Saturday mornings at Walker Brothers Original Pancake House his daughters feasted on the new words and etymologies he served them with breakfast.

“My husband and I felt our role was to enjoy the children rather than to discipline them,” Kathleen told the RoundTable. “I treated them – at least their thoughts and feelings – as adults. I talked to them, I guess. Oh, and yes, I listened.”

Kathleen moved to Evanston in 2000 and a year later completed a 10-year journey to a Ph.D. in English at University of Illinois at Chicago. Her dissertation combined her interests in teaching and Piven theatre games. In the meantime, she returned to the stage following non-equity auditions that led to a Jeff award and other roles so good they amaze her. “I’m surprised young playwrights are writing plays for old people,” she says.

Kathleen was expecting her daughter to be in town for the March 30 rehearsal to oversee last-minute changes the night before the production moved to the Wit. “I am kind of a nervous person,” Kathleen says, “always more nervous when family and friends are in the audience.” Yet, she says, “There is always the sense of the cast being in a bubble onstage – kind of protected. It might be scariest for [those] in the audience, watching actors portraying them.”

The Wit has no facilities for flying. But Kathleen hints that Sarah and Jessica Thebus, whom Kathleen calls “an amazing director who makes it fun,“ have figured out an alternative.

Considering her qualms about a birthday that felt very “different,” Kathleen reflects on “how therapeutic it is to be involved in this play at this time.” She says she does not want anyone to write, “Poor Sarah Ruhl, she had to write a play for her mother.”  But she says she hopes audiences “will find some comfort” in what is for her “a wonderful gift, an amazing and beautiful gift.”