.Theater: Lasting recognition

Sarah Ruhl’s ‘The Oldest Boy’ blends the real and surreal

by Charles Brousse

Ever since Edward Albee settled into semi-retirement, American playwrights have been engaged in a game of “Who’s Next?” One after another, names have appeared and then vanished, like comets crossing the night sky. A few (Sam Shepard comes to mind) have lingered a little longer, and now we have Sarah Ruhl, whose The Oldest Boy is currently having its West Coast premiere at the Marin Theatre Company, making a strong bid for lasting recognition.

Ruhl’s career has had a remarkably steep trajectory. When still in her 20s, The Clean House (2005)—recently revived by the Ross Valley Players—was a finalist for that year’s Pulitzer (as was In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play in 2010). Among her several national awards, she received a $500,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2006. Her plays are being produced in regional theaters throughout the country and have been especially well received in the Bay Area, where no less than five of them have appeared, or will shortly appear, within the space of a few months. Only Shakespeare beats that total.

The basis for this unusual popularity appears to be found in Ruhl’s ability to examine important issues with a unique blend of realism and surrealism (she calls it “three dimensional poetry”) that is non-linear, non-confrontational and—even in its darkest moments—filled with lightness, surprise and whimsy. This is not a sellout to commercialism. She wants us to think about serious problems … but they are framed with unexpected metaphors and illogical disconnects. That, she maintains, is closer to life’s reality than the usual orderly progression from crisis to resolution.

All of the just described elements are clearly visible in The Oldest Boy. The perfectly cast Christine Albright and Kurt Uy seem like average American parents—except that they’re not. Both have deep cultural and religious problems stemming from their backgrounds. She’s a lapsed Catholic, searching for a more “rational” approach to life; he’s a young restaurateur and Tibetan-born Buddhist, who is troubled by the fact that he broke off a family arranged engagement to marry her. She believes in a strong maternal bond with their 3-year-old son Tenzin; he promotes the traditional Buddhist detachment from earthly things.

Neither comments on the fact that Tenzin (played by a life-sized wooden puppet, expertly manipulated by Melvign Badiola and Jed Parsario) delivers pronouncements on all kinds of matters in an authoritative old man’s voice. Nor—beyond initial objections by Mother (Ruhl’s name for the character)—do they put up much resistance when a robed Tibetan Lama (Jinn S. Kim) and his monk companion (Wayne Lee) walk unannounced into their house and say they’ve come to take Tenzin to India, where he will be honored as the reincarnation of a long dead holy man. Time passes and soon the lad is telling them to return home because he doesn’t need them anymore.

Ruhl doesn’t resolve anything, or even examine the key issue of whether the Buddhist belief in reincarnation that is taking away their precious child is rationally defensible. Like most of her plays, when it’s over, The Oldest Boy just stops, leaving—like a Zen koan—the question of what it all means hanging in the air.

MTC’s production is impeccable, from Jessica Thebus’ sensitive direction, to the solid contributions of Jeff Rowlings (lights), Fumiko Bielefeldt (costumes), Chris Houston (sound), Collette Pollard (set) and combined work of the many others involved.

Will Sarah Ruhl’s current success defy the recent American practice of constantly demanding new faces as the most talented older ones migrate to television and cinema? It’ll be interesting to see.

NOW PLAYING: The Oldest Boy runs through Sunday, October 4 at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; marintheatre.org.


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