'The Oldest Boy': Theater Review

T. Charles Erickson
James Saito, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jon Norman Schneider in "The Oldest Boy"
A captivating work that renders a bizarre situation oddly relatable

An American mother learns that her three-year-old son may be the reincarnation of a Tibetan high lama in Sarah Ruhl's new play

It's hardly uncommon that the emotional tsunami of maternal love can inspire many mothers to believe their children are truly special beings, perhaps even divine. But in the imaginative mind of Sarah Ruhl that primal connection yields an extraordinary story. The Oldest Boy may not match the poetic complexity of the playwright's The Clean House, or the sociopsychological acuity of In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play, but this meditation on such intellectually unfashionable concepts as faith, destiny and spirituality is delicate and affecting. And it's impossible to imagine it receiving more ideal treatment than in Rebecca Taichman's exquisite production for Lincoln Center Theater.

In the decade since Ruhl emerged as a singular new voice in American theater, she has established herself as a writer adept at weaving together lyricism with naturalism. The MacArthur Fellowship recipient combines existential inquiry with playful humor and unstinting compassion. By that standard, The Oldest Boy is among her more straightforward works, but it has a poignancy that feels unique and entirely personal. It also evinces a fresh perspective on parental attachment and the mentor-disciple relationship.

The setup is instantly intriguing. A young mother (Celia Keenan-Bolger) in an unnamed American city is interrupted from her failed attempt at meditation by the doorbell. She ushers in two crimson-robed strangers, a monk (Jon Norman Schneider) and a lama (James Saito), assuming them to be acquaintances of her Tibetan emigre husband (James Yaegashi). None of the characters is ever identified by name aside from the couple's three-year-old son, Tenzin, who is played with uncanny expressiveness by a bunraku puppet designed by Matt Acheson. One of the three puppeteers manipulating him, Ernest Abuba, provides the preternaturally wise child's voice.

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Once they get over their surprise that the boy's mother is Caucasian, the monks inform her of their belief that he is the reincarnation of the lama's beloved late teacher. Taichman and Ruhl tease out the gentle humor and awkwardness of the encounter, as the mother volunteers information on her Catholic upbringing, her shift into atheism and her tentative steps toward Buddhism. The visitors then reveal their wish to take Tenzin back to a monastery in India to begin his spiritual education.

There are superficial similarities here with the Western reincarnation story told onscreen by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1993's Little Buddha. But Ruhl is less interested in the is-he-or-isn't-he part than in the mother's conflicted response to the discovery that her precious child might be destined for a higher plan. Tenzin's innate serenity, his immediate rapport with the lama and his elaborate dreams that are gradually revealed to be memories of his former life all give credence to the monks' claim. The beliefs of Tenzin's father make him willing to surrender their child to a greater purpose, but the decision they face forces the mother to re-examine all her culturally ingrained ideas of parenthood. Ultimately, the choice may be up to neither of them.

To anyone in the audience, the notion of giving up one's child is doubtless too unthinkable to make sense within a predominantly realistic context. However, Ruhl uses her beguiling storytelling skills, including a porous fourth wall and elements of ceremonial dance, music and singing, to make the mother's struggle a dramatically cogent one.

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There's gorgeous fluidity in the writing as it jumps back to recount how Tenzin's parents met at the Tibetan restaurant his father runs, when his mother came in one afternoon seeking shelter from the rain. Ruhl gets a little obvious here, making this fit with the Buddhist use of the term "take refuge" to mean religious conversion. But the background feeds movingly into both the child's conception and the mother's dilemma. The same goes for a recap of the father's childhood flight out of China-occupied Tibet to Nepal, strapped to his widowed mother's back. "My mother was my country," he says, voicing a sentiment echoed in melancholy notes throughout the play.

The drama's developments also are influenced by Tenzin's mother's own sense of loss over the passing of her college professor. He inspired her with his belief that books could be about virtue and meaning, which made him "a wonderful dinosaur" among more aridly intellectual academics. Her exchange with the lama about that teacher is among the play's most touching scenes. And given that the playwright herself is a mother of three, the objective distance from which she weighs the importance of parental versus mentorship roles is quite stirring.

All of this acquires urgency, emotional veracity and unexpected humor in Keenan-Bolger's beautiful performance. The actress has primarily made her mark in  playing children — from the awkward outsider (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) to the feisty adventurer (Peter and the Starcatcher) and the prisoner of arrested adolescence (The Glass Menagerie). It's rewarding to watch her step into the role of a modern adult woman, facing every mother's separation anxiety with an open heart and a questioning mind.

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There's also lovely work from veteran Saito, whose face is the very picture of kindness and understanding, and from Abuba, whose embodiment of Tenzin becomes the soul of the play, despite the story being told from his mother's perspective. Yaegashi's role is less developed but be brings sincerity to a man straddling two cultures.

Taichman has a long association with Ruhl, and her direction here is perfectly attuned to the playwright's peculiar sensibility. The same goes for the minimalist set of Mimi Lien, with a circular parquet stage floor that takes on the symbolic appearance of a mandala. An elevated rear playing space serves for ceremonial and dream interludes, notably one that draws on the King Solomon tale as told in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Japhy Weideman, who impressed last season with his descriptive work on Broadway productions of Macbeth and Of Mice and Men, again demonstrates that he's one of the most artful theatrical lighting designers to emerge in the last 10 years.

The vulnerability of the family unit is among the most overtrafficked themes in contemporary American drama, and the threatened removal of a child a familiar point of conflict. But Ruhl finds distinctive variations in a story in which it's the child himself who chooses his path.

Cast: Celia Keenan-Bolger, James Yaegashi, James Saito, Jon Norman Schneider, Ernest Abuba, Tsering Dorjee, Takemi Kitamura, Nami Yamamoto

Director: Rebecca Taichman

Playwright: Sarah Ruhl

Set designer: Mimi Lien

Costume designer: Anita Yavich

Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman

Sound designer: Darron L. West

Puppet designer and director: Matt Acheson

Choreographer: Barney O’Hanlon

Presented by Lincoln Center Theater 

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