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A Ruhl That Doesn't Rule

A lesser effort by the Pulitzer-nominated playwright at Piven

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LATE: A COWBOY SONG Piven Theatre

I saw my first Sarah Ruhl show, Melancholy Play, at Piven Theatre in 2002, directed by Jessica Thebus and starring Polly Noonan—both of whom, like playwright Ruhl, are alums of Piven's youth theater program. By now, Noonan is to Ruhl what Billie Whitelaw was to Samuel Beckett: a foremost interpreter, as adept with the Wilmette native's mournful, idiosyncratic vernacular as Whitelaw was with Beckett's stark mordancy. For her part, Thebus has staged the local premieres of Ruhl's The Clean House (at the Goodman in 2006), Eurydice (at Victory Gardens in 2008) and Dead Man's Cell Phone (at Steppenwolf the same year).

The trio has reunited at Piven for the first local production of Ruhl's 2003 Late: A Cowboy Song. Written before the playwright became a marquee name in American theater, with a MacArthur "genius" grant, two Pulitzer nominations, and a best-play Tony nomination under her belt, Late is a half-full/half-empty affair, either notable for elements suggesting better things to come or dismissible as decidedly thin broth studded with some distinct and colorful chunks.

Doublemindedness is required to appreciate what Ruhl tries and fails to accomplish in this warmhearted but underdeveloped portrait of a marriage between two childhood sweethearts—Mary and Crick (Noonan and Lawrence Grimm), whose relationship shifts when a former school chum, Red (Kelli Simpkins), reenters Mary's life. Toss in a just-this-side-of-exploitative plotline about Mary and Crick's newborn intersex baby and Ruhl's desire to map the borders between male and female, friend and lover, even city and country, becomes clear—though the map itself can get cartoonish at points.

The city/country split is illustrated by Red's career choice. She's a singing cowboy (not "cowgirl") whose laid-back, fearless approach to life seems to soothe Mary's tattered nerves as much as her songs—cunning tunes by Amy Warren—soothe the horses she tames.

Fragility bordering on neurasthenia is Noonan's stock-in-trade. She's a 21st-century version of Sandy Dennis, who, as Walter Kerr once observed, treated sentences as "weak, injured things." If quavery-voiced loopiness drives you nuts, you'll want to stay away from Late. Yet Noonan is often Ruhl's secret weapon. Her turn as multiple variations on a village idiot in the Goodman's 2007 production of Ruhl's Passion Play provided the emotional and moral center for that ambitious triptych about the messy intersection between politics and religion. In Late, Noonan's delivery of some of Ruhl's wry aphorisms reminded me of Jules Feiffer's iconic modern dancer. She also nails the buoyant joy of riding a horse for the first time—no easy task given how often the notion of girls getting pleasure on horseback has been pornified.

Like Noonan, Thebus has a good handle on the quirky rhythms of Ruhl's world. She hasn't got a solution, however, for Late's problems.

Ruhl has set up some sharp questions about how a person can hang onto her central core after matrimony and parenthood, yet she blinks just as the most interesting conflicts start coming into view. For all the sapphic overtones of their friendship, for instance, Mary seems to need Red more as an avatar for the freewheeling life she'd like to sample than as an actual soulmate and sexual partner. Simpkins's portrayal goes down easy, but as written, she's essentially the butch female version of the sympathetic gay friend beloved of hetero sitcoms everywhere.

And then there's Mary's relationship with Crick. Ruhl drops hints that he might have a violent temper, while Mary has a low tolerance for even implied mayhem—a soup recipe from The Joy of Cooking causes her to observe, "My god, it's violent, isn't it?" The real problem between them, though, is that Crick worships things that are fixed and reliable. He watches It's a Wonderful Life over and over, and a frenetic sequence in which he and Mary speed through almost every holiday in the calendar year highlights his love of social rituals. "If all bad things in the world were paintings, and we just looked at them," he tells Mary, "we'd all be better off." The desire to keep a partner fixed in a frame is at once one of the harshest and most mundane forms of emotional violence lovers enact against each other, and Ruhl is good enough at anatomizing it in the play's quieter moments that we don't need the dark hints of potential abuse she awkwardly shoehorns into the story.

What we do need is a clearer sense of how Crick and Mary's hermaphroditic baby, Blue, affects how they view each other and Red. The doctors make Blue a female at birth, but as the name Mary picks for her attests—Crick calls her Jill, telling Mary, "I don't want my daughter living on a fence"—she doesn't understand why it's necessary to choose a fixed gender for the child. At one point Mary writes Blue a letter, telling her that if she should happen to feel other than female as she grows up, she's not crazy. It's a terrific, emotionally naked moment. But it doesn't mitigate the fact that the invisible child has more to do with a playwright's need for a symbol of ambiguity than with the role all children play in redefining their parents.

The Clean House—which takes on marital infidelity, disease, and death—is memorable mainly for Ruhl's ability to dramatize loss through her characters' fixations on small things. (Anyone who has been through the death of a loved one knows how easy it is to use arbitrary fixations as a distraction.) That play's skillful blending of real-world dilemmas and metaphorical flights of fancy is lacking in Late. It's hard to imagine it working at all without Noonan's breezy neurosis as Mary.   

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