I always get a little worried when I hear that a white playwright is going to be dealing with Asian subject matter and characters. While I think it is possible to create positive and/or complex representations outside of one’s own experience, too often these kinds of works come across as Orientalist. Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy, produced Off-Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater, does not escape that critique. Director Rebecca Taichman’s production relies on clichéd tropes such as the use of flute music to signal a move in the play’s setting from America to Asia. However, it would be reductive to focus only on elements such as this. Beneath the surface trappings of exoticism, Ruhl has created a gently moving drama that serves as a meditation on issues of family, learning, and spirituality.
I use the word “meditation” deliberately, as that’s what we first see the play’s protagonist doing and it describes the ethos for the work as a whole. Played by Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger, the character identified only as Mother is a white American woman married to a Tibetan immigrant (listed as Father and played by James Yaegashi). They are the parents of the titular character, named Tenzin and embodied by a bunraku-style puppet operated by black-clad actors and voiced by Ernest Abuba who follows close behind them and sometimes serves as an additional puppeteer.
Tenzin is revealed to be the reincarnation of a Buddhist lama, and specifically a revered teacher who had passed away three years prior. A visiting lama, also referred to by the honorific title of Rinpoche (James Saito), has come to America accompanied by a monk (Jon Norman Schneider) for the express purpose of meeting the child. They want to bring the toddler to a monastery in India where he will receive his spiritual education. The primary conflict within the play is Mother’s process of learning to let go, with her practice of attachment parenting serving as an ironic counterpoint to what she’s being asked to give up.
Ruhl has a poetic sensibility and a clear-eyed intelligence that comes through in her writing. She also does not shy away from addressing issues of cultural difference, most keenly seen in the courtship between Mother and Father, told via a narrative flashback. While the two both felt a genuine connection upon their first meeting, they were each engaged to another. Mother found it easy enough to break it off with her fiancé, but Father was to be wed to a Tibetan woman whom his parents had chosen for him. He struggled between acting upon his love for Mother and fulfilling his duty to his family. The issue is complicated by the plight of the Tibetan people, whose population was decimated during China’s invasion of Tibet in the mid-20th century. “My culture is dying,” says Father, attempting to explain why the arranged marriage is necessary. While he obviously eventually chose Mother, this does not mean he turned his back on his heritage or that he does not recognize the duty he’s been called upon to perform in relation to his son.
Keenan-Bolger delivers a beautifully layered performance, balancing the play’s humor with the deep sadness that threatens to overwhelm Mother when she thinks about giving up her child. One of the most touching scenes showcases the bond she develops with Rinpoche—played with both humor and humility by Saito—as they discuss the death of her own beloved teacher. As Father, Yaegashi has a quiet intensity that belies his usually calm outer demeanor. You get the sense that the character has a lot of emotion inside but doesn’t really know how to express it. Meanwhile, Abuba pitches his voice into a stylized rendition of a child that is both alienating and somehow comforting.
Mimi Lien’s set is spare, yet effective. An opening in the wall behind the main action is used as an additional staging area for dream sequences and eventually for an important ritual when the family visits India. Japhy Weideman’s lighting is gorgeously evocative, particularly in a scene that puts Father and Mother in a rectangular shaft of light that reinforces the intimacy that builds up to the couple’s first kiss. Also notable are costume designer Anita Yavich’s colorful outfits that are worn by the chorus (Tsering Dorjee, Takemi Kitamura, and Nami Yamamoto) during an important ritual ceremony.
The beautiful design work admittedly plays into notions of Orientalism. However, the production’s visual aesthetic is simultaneously put into service of Taichman’s heightened sense of theatricality, which helps to tell this quietly engaging story whose outcome is never in serious doubt.
The Oldest Boy is presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (150 West 65th Street) through Dec 28. Schedule is Tu-Sa at 8; mats W & Sa at 2, Su at 3. No perfs. Nov 27 or Dec 5; added 2pm matinees Nov 28 and Dec 26. Tickets are $87. For more information, visit www.lct.org.