What I LOVE about Sarah Ruhl is that she has a mind that has wandered out of the barn and created its own bold path. She takes me places I never imagined visiting. What do you do when you find a dead man’s cell phone? What was the first vibrator used for? What do you get when you take the story of Eurydice and create a modern fantasy? What goes into a stage kiss anyway?
With her latest offering, The Oldest Boy at Lincoln Center she plonks us unceremoniously into the world of Tibetan Budhism. A mother ( no names are used here) – Catherine Keenan-Bolger, lives in a large town – not mentioned – and is one day visited by two Buddhist priests. She is somewhat familiar with their roles as her husband (James Yaegashi) is Tibetan. Their marriage got both family’s knickers in a twist as both were engaged at the time they met. Over the years she has come to be intrigued by his culture and Buddhism itself. She is a recovering Catholic looking for something to believe in. They have a son Tenzin (a puppet voiced by Ernest Abuba), and it is this child the monk and Lama (Jon Norman Schneider and James Saito respectively) have come to meet. They believe he is the reincarnation of their teacher, and as such he deserves to take his place in their community in India.
Before we get too far along Ruhl and Taichman treat us to a beautifully choreographed presentation of how mother and father met. It was a horrible rainy night. Her teacher had just died. She had no umbrella. His restaurant appeared, and she went in. Within hours they were in love. She devoured his food like a starving person. He welled up with love and tenderness that threatened his family and their plans to marry him to a Tibetan. She more or less never left. They got married as soon as she was a little bit pregnant, and three years later all is well. Except for when it isn’t.
Like when the lama comes to visit.
Once the ground rules have been established, the boy is interviews. He is given the choice of sever items three of which belonged to the teacher. He picks the right ones. Now it is just a matter of getting permission to take him from his family. There is a soul searching conversation with the parents, but it never achieves a sort of life and death pitch that I imagine something like this would entail. There are waves of emotion, but eventually the decision seems to have been made for them because their resistance is so easily toppled.
In the second act everyone is in India for the enthronement. The boy is not scheduled to stay, but to return in two years. Somehow it all turns slowly in the other direction and stay he does. The story is complicated by the mother giving birth to a daughter whose best quality is that she will never become a lama. She will never be taken from her parents. We witness the enthronement where the “boy” disappears and the mother sees the old man he was in his former lifetime.
As she recovers from the birth everyone visits once a week, until the boy tells his mother to go home. He is where he needs to be. The family leaves and returns to America. At night the boy still visits his mother who has become obsessed with translating Tibetan documents into English. In a matter of fact way she tells us that the play is now finished. And that’s the end of this play. Or the beginning. They are sometimes hard to tell apart. And it’s difficult to go from one to the other. To say good-morning is easy. To say goodnight is hard. Good-night.
This is a beautifully presented play in so many ways. The actors are accessible and authentic, and the staging borders on the surreal in just the right ways. Still, I never got the visceral connection to these parents giving up their child. The words were there expelling it to me, but the electricity of that separation was missing. It came across as sad, not gut wrenching. This is a thoughtful piece that brought up enormous issues of different cultures learning to come together – so Ruhl’s ideas stick to the ribs. But in The Oldest Boy the direct path to the heart was never fully chosen or traveled. It was a near miss when I was so wanting a direct hit.
The Oldest Boy
By Sarah Ruhl; directed by Rebecca Taichman
WITH: Ernest Abuba (the Oldest Boy), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Mother), James Saito (a Lama), Jon Norman Schneider (a Monk), James Yaegashi (Father) and Tsering Dorjee, Takemi Kitamura and Nami Yamamoto (Chorus).
Sets by Mimi Lien; costumes by Anna Yavich; lighting by Japhy Weideman; sound by Darron L West; puppet design/direction, Matt Acheson; choreography, Barney O’Hanlon; stage manager, Charles M. Turner III; general manager, Jessica Niebanck; production manager, Paul Smithyman. Presented by Lincoln Center Theater, André Bishop, producing artistic director; Adam Siegel, managing director. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 212-239-6200, lct.org. Through Dec. 28. Running time: 2 hours.