Augustana College Special Virtual Reading Reunites Sarah Ruhl and Her Mother
As many theaters and musicians nationwide have moved performances online, the Mississippi Bend Players at Augustana College is salvaging part of its canceled summer season, by offering a virtual reading Friday, Aug. 21, of playwright Sarah Ruhl’s deeply personal “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday.”
(The performance originally was scheduled for Aug. 14, but was postponed after power outages this week. Tickets for the original date will be honored on Aug. 21. Patrons who are unable to attend on the new date, and who would like a refund, should contact the Ticket Office.)
Filled with Quad-Cities references and memories of the past, Ruhl lovingly wrote the piece (which explores life, death and the allure of never growing up) for her mother, Kathleen Kehoe Ruhl. The 77-year-old Davenport native – who played the lead role in a 2017 Chicago production — is thrilled to be doing the Zoom reading from her home in Evanston, Ill.
“The cast is wonderful,” Kathy said in a recent interview. “I’m enjoying working with them.”
“Quarantining had been getting to me, so these will have been a nice, lively two weeks,” she said. “I will definitely miss the human contact of it.”
Based on her mom’s experience playing Peter Pan as a teenager in Davenport, Sarah Ruhl wrote the family play, which premiered in 2016 in Louisville, Ky. Kathy – a 1960 Assumption alum who took part in the first years of Davenport Junior Theatre — played the lead for the first time in 2017 in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production, at the intimate Theater Wit in Chicago.
“It’s a wonderful gift, it really is,” Kathy Ruhl said three years ago of the 75-minute play about her family. “I have found it comforting at many levels. It’s really an extraordinary gift, making this discussion of death and the afterlife more explicit.”
“The reason the word birthday was in the title, when I hit 70, it was sort of distressing, and she was really writing it to reassure me,” she said. “The play talks about the afterlife, what do you think it is. It’s not a Peter Pan for children. In the third movement, we go to Neverland — as a metaphor in several ways — it could be heaven, an avoidance of reality.”
Sarah — a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, Tony Award nominee, and MacArthur “genius” grant winner — wrote about “the longing for the immortality of Neverland,” according to a play release. “Five siblings move from their father’s hospital bed to a Jameson-fueled kitchen table wake….In this world of make-believe, now seen through the eyes of these adults, there is still magic and wisdom for the young at heart.”
Shattered Globe producing artistic director Sandy Shinner said: “Sarah’s humor and unique spin on the classic tale will touch every audience member’s heart. I’m excited to surprise the audience as the intensity of the first two sections of the play transforms into a world of imagination and metaphor.”
The play premiered at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival, transferred to California’s Berkeley Rep, and was performed in late 2017 at New York’ City’s Playwrights Horizons.
The professional summer stock Mississippi Bend Players at Augie had scheduled it (with Kathy) for July 2020, but in April had to scrap its summer season at Brunner Theatre Center due to Covid-19.
“The show was brought to me initially from Jennifer Popple and Jeff Coussens, because they had seen the show in Louisville,” said Jackie McCall, MBP’s producing artistic director. “They were just really blown away by the show. Because of all the local ties in the script; because Sarah had visited campus previously, they thought it would be a strong contender, and I definitely agreed with that.”
“We’re disappointed not to be able to do the show in the way we originally envisioned it, but at this point everyone is so hungry for theater – to work on it, to watch it, to enjoy it – we will take this for sure,” she said, noting Popple is directing and Coussens (chair of Augie’s theater department) is in the cast.
New Augie grad Tristan Odenkirk (an MBP veteran) will be reading the stage directions as well throughout, and Sarah (from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y.) will give an intro and be part of a Q&A afterward, “It’s exciting, but it’s just not the same,” McCall said.
The cast includes Michael Carron as John, Mike Schulz as Michael, Jeanne Scurek as Wendy, and Doug Kutzli as Father. Kathy said she learned Carron as a boy was a patient of her father, a pediatrician.
“That often happens when I go to Davenport, meet someone new, and they say, ‘your dad was my doctor,’” she said. “It’s especially poignant with this play, because the play starts with my dad dying.”
The influence of Peter Pan on a playwright
Davenport Junior Theatre was founded in 1951 and is the nation’s second-oldest children’s theater. Before its permanent location on the Annie Wittenmyer campus on Eastern Avenue, Kathleen Kehoe played (and “flew”) as Peter Pan in productions in 1958 and 1959 (at Davenport‘s Masonic Temple and the former Orpheum Theatre, today’s Adler), getting to meet Broadway star Mary Martin (who immortalized the role) the second year.
“It’s made a big difference in my life,” she said of DJT, noting her mom did speech contests when she was young. “As a third-grader, I had lot of extra energy, so she started me” in theater. “It was something I was good at, I liked. Whatever I do, I just do it.”
In “Peter Pan,” the flying apparatus had a lot of bugs, Kathy recalled recently. “The harness just bit into your thighs; we were padded with a lot of Kotex,” she said. “I liked the flying, it was fun, especially in the Orpheum. I wasn’t scared.”
It was very exciting to meet Mary Martin, the original star of “South Pacific” and “Sound of Music” who played Peter Pan in 1954 on Broadway and for the 1960 TV film. “She was really nice; she signed my book,” Kathy said. “She sent down flowers. It was a lovely memory.”
Kathy met her future husband, Patrick Ruhl (who went to Davenport Central), at an Outing Club ball the summer before he started at Amherst College and she at Smith in Massachusetts.
Kathy majored in theater at Smith College, and has acted in Chicago since the mid-’60s. She taught English — after earning a master of arts in teaching from the University of Chicago — at a Catholic high school in Wilmette, and while working on a doctorate in English at University of Illinois-Chicago, taught freshman composition and English education courses. Kathy completed the PhD in 2003.
The dream of a permanent DJT home came true in 1976 when the city of Davenport bought the Annie Wittenmyer Complex and designated three cottages and the chapel for the program. Over the next four years, Junior Theatre, Inc. invested $750,000 and countless volunteer hours toward its renovation. Another major renovation (including all new seats) was done in 2017.
Sarah and her other daughter Kate (now a geriatric psychiatrist) were born in Chicago, and their mother would involve them in learning lines when she rehearsed. Sarah started creating stories even before she literally could write, Kathy said.
“She said smart things even though she couldn’t write ’em down,” she said. “In grade school, kids would always want to hear her stories first. She edited the literary magazine in high school, and did poetry and fiction.”
Sarah received her M.F.A. from Brown University, where she studied with playwright and professor Paula Vogel (who won a 1998 Pulitzer for drama for her play “How I Learned to Drive.” She received the Whiting Writers Award, Lilly Award, a PEN Center award for mid-career playwrights and a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant.
That 2006 fellowship called her “a fresh, compelling and versatile playwright” who in the sparse, contemporary “Eurydice” captures “the pain of loss, the lessening of pain over time and the necessity of forgetting.” That personal play — done at St. Ambrose in 2013 — was written in honor of her late father, Pat, who died in 1994 from bone cancer at age 54.
Ruhl has twice been named a Pulitzer finalist — in 2010 for “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)” and in 2005 for “The Clean House.” She also received a Tony nomination for Best Play for “In the Next Room,” which was done at Augustana in early 2018, co-starring Tristan Odenkirk.
Sarah said recently by e-mail that was she was looking forward to “Peter Pan” at Augie, where she spoke in March 2019.
“It felt as though the play was coming home to its roots. My mother was going to perform the play a mile or two from where she grew up,” she said of MBP. “My whole extended family was going to come to town to see it. I was going to show my kids where my grandparents lived on 111 McClellan Blvd.
“It was a sad loss — of both the art and the coming together — when the production was cancelled. I was thrilled that folks were game to do an online version,” Sarah said. “And, obviously no theater losses are as big as the epic losses of lives and livelihoods that people have had during this pandemic.
“My mother grew up playing Peter Pan in the Davenport children’s theater. I grew up with a picture of her flying in green tights, and a picture of her with Mary Martin from the local newspaper,” she recalled. “I had always associated the magic of the theater with my mother flying in green tights across a stage in Davenport. The play was written for her, and for my extended family from Davenport.
“I grew up coming to Davenport at least five times a year, and the summer fireflies along the Mississippi are as central to my childhood as anything else,” Sarah said.
Pros and cons of virtual theater
Kathy said the advantages of doing the online reading include hearing stage directions, and allowing anyone to see it – including her far-flung siblings (just brother Joe is in the Q-C) and current boyfriend Richard, an Assumption alum who lives in Australia.
“Many times, after people have heard readings of Sarah’s shows, they say, ‘I’m so glad to hear the stage directions; I like them a lot’,” Kathy said. Last year, Sarah recalled her mentor Vogel saying, “Stage directions are a love letter from the playwright to his or her future collaborators.”
Of what will be missed, Kathy said: “It’s too bad – things we’d be missing, in the third act, there’s a big picture of our old house on McClellan Boulevard, and of the Mississippi River, and the lights on the river.”
“It’s so nice to revisit a script,” she said. “I get to see some things I missed or I wanted to do differently. That’s really a lovely thing, that for me can be accomplished without having to fly or be on stage.”
Though another lead actress in “For Peter Pan” has “flown” on stage, Kathy didn’t have to in 2017, which was seen by many Q-C family and friends.
Sarah interviewed her mother and Kathy’s four siblings as part of the creation of “Peter Pan.” A Chicago Tribune review said it “starts off with a charming prologue about Ann’s days as the star of ‘Peter Pan’ in Davenport…”
There’s also a touch of “Our Town” in the epilogue, the review said, “where Ann and her father go back in time to her triumphant performance as Peter.” The play “works best if viewed as a daughter’s gift to her mother. Kathleen Ruhl and the cast deliver delightful and sometimes-poignant performances…,” the Trib said.
A piece in Chicago Theatre Review credited that cast for “bringing humor and honesty to their roles and seamlessly making the jump between reality, memory and fantasy…With sensitivity and lyrical beauty, Sarah Ruhl’s language and strong, realistic characters create an emotional portrait.”
“I keep imagining Davenport friends coming to see it, but of course they’ll be in their living rooms,” Kathy said of the virtual reading.
During quarantine, Sarah said she has a routine of “Cook, bake, clean, write, launder, sleep, eat, repeat. I have a new daily practice of writing haiku. I have a husband, three kids and a dog…We take lots of walks, watch a lot of movies at night, try to remember what day it is, try to stay closely connected with far flung friends and family.”
In April, Sarah wrote about her father-in-law’s death and Zoom memorial, for The Atlantic.
She co-founded the online 3Views project, to support the theater community, by highlighting planned productions waylaid by the pandemic. This includes an excerpt from the script, video, photos, production history, and design highlights.
“Theater has always been ephemeral, of the moment, and a practice for loss. But never has our community felt that as keenly as we do now,” Ruhl said. “We wanted to shine light on the theatrical-almosts across our country, and the theatrical moments cut short, to celebrate them, in the hopes that they can be resurrected after Covid. I think of it as a kind of collective practice to mark this time.”
Sarah said they started the site as a way to embrace more diverse theater criticism, and when the pandemic hit, “we pivoted to mourn the loss of theater and create a sense of connection for those isolated at home.”
A “Eurydice” opera and new college year
Kathy and Sarah and Rich went to Los Angeles in January, pre-pandemic, to see the world premiere of the opera “Eurydice,” with a libretto by Sarah and music by 29-year-old composer Matthew Aucoin, a 2018 MacArthur Fellow.
“The opera was a thrill,” Sarah said. “Everything in opera is bigger—from the voices, to the sets, to the chandeliers. The Met is set to do Eurydice a year from fall, but I’m knocking on wood given the state of the world.”
“The composer is quite a genius,” Kathy said. “Very smart and knowledgeable and hip and fun.”
“Eurydice,” which retells the mythical story of a young couple, Orpheus and Eurydice, separated by death on their wedding day, was written partly in response to Ruhl’s lingering grief over the death of her father. Her play grapples with the difficulty of comprehending profound loss, according to the Los Angeles Times.
A New York Times review said: “The play is meditative and surreal, fantastical and funny… Throughout this three-act opera, you sense Mr. Aucoin honorably striving to serve the play.”
For Friday’s “Peter Pan,” people can reserve limited spots for free at https://augustana.edu/arts/ticket-office. Donations of any amount will be encouraged.
“We’re thrilled with whatever people feel they can help us out with,” McCall said. “It will help support stipends actors are being paid for this, and royalties, just all those things you have as part of any production.”
On Aug. 21 at noon, patrons with a reservation will receive a Zoom link and instructions. McCall also hopes to put together a historical slide show of Junior Theatre photos before the 7:30 p.m. reading.
MBP will donate half the proceeds from the show to Central Community Circle Food Pantry in Davenport to help out people who lost the contents of their refrigerators and freezers due to the power being out for so long, after the Aug. 10 storm.
“Such a great cause, and it’s Kathy’s hometown. I’m really excited about this,” McCall added.
Odenkirk and Schulz had planned to return this summer for Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound” the last in a trilogy they started at MBP with “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Biloxi Blues.” They don’t have plans for a reading of that, partly because of rules regarding the show rights.
“Even getting this one, with Sarah’s express permission, was a little more complicated,” McCall said. “There’s just so many things we don’t know about what theater is going to look like in the coming year, that we felt we could commit to this right now and just sort of get back to school and see what life is like for us, before we start any further events.”
Augie plans to restart in-person classes (with new safety protocols) on Aug. 31, and go through Nov. 25, with classes held online the week after Thanksgiving, and finals taken remotely. Students are encouraged to be tested for Covid-19, where possible, before they arrive at Augustana for the fall.
Surveillance testing will start with students who arrive early, and it will continue with the first week of classes and throughout the term. Not everyone will be tested. Surveillance testing means testing a sample of the population. Augustana will test about 20% of students, staff and faculty.
In-person graduation for the classes of 2020 and 2021 will be held May 23, 2021.