On one of my always-magical trips to the Drama Book Shop, I picked up a play that I had always been curious about: Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy. This curiosity stemmed from two things- one, the original Lincoln Center production artwork (which I thought was gorgeous). Two, the premise of the piece, which explores an American mother and Tibetan father faced with a Hobson choice about their three-year-old son.
As an aside, I really hoped that the cover of the published play would have the original Lincoln Center artwork. It did not. Nevertheless, I plunked down my cash and planned to tackle it after reading the libretto of Heathers the Musical. Got some serious diversity going on, don’t I?!
Having completed The Oldest Boy in one bus ride home, I’m going to share some thoughts about it with you guys. For starters, the parents’ big choice arises when they are visited by a pair of Buddhist monks. The monks are immediately drawn to Mother and Father’s little son…as it turns out, he is a reincarnated Lama, or high-ranking Buddhist teacher. Interestingly, Sarah Ruhl dispels that mystery early on; she has said that the play is not about “if,” but “now what.”
The Mother (portrayed by Celia Keenan-Bolger in the original production) is the central character, facing her own spiritual tugs-of-war while deciding whether or not her child should live in an Asian monastery to fulfill his destiny. It’s a meaty, heart-wrenching role, and one I would love to do someday.
The play’s dialogue was surprisingly breezy and easy-to-read…it could have been very lecture-like but was not. And I still learned quite a bit about the doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism (I’ve long had an interest in world religions). Despite the heavy subject matter, Ruhl managed to infuse some humorous moments, too.
The staging requirements for the show were very odd to see on paper. Apparently, there is an optional chorus of Tibetan dancers that appears symbolically at pivotal moments in the story. Furthermore, the role of Tenzin (the son) is actually done by an adult speaking his lines while manipulating a child puppet. It’s a curious dramatic device, and one you don’t see very often. I imagine that when this play is performed by smaller companies, these elements get heavily modified.
I don’t have the resources to properly investigate that, but I can tell you that the original Lincoln Center presentation received mixed reviews. Much of the positivity in these reviews was indeed aimed at the unusual staging and direction by Rebecca Taichman (this year’s Tony winner for Indecent). Knowing such facts, I cannot help but wonder if The Oldest Boy will lose a chunk of its power when done on a smaller scale.
Even while reading it, I pondered how the play could translate as a narrative as opposed to a live piece. Could it be that this work fares better as a novella? I don’t know.
I also did not fully understand the final scene, but that might just be my naïveté. The Mother’s struggles were very moving, and I teared up more than once. These themes- loss, parental attachment, and love- are ones that affect us all. In that regard, which is the purpose of all theatre…I find The Oldest Boy to be a success.