Plenty of pop culture real estate—from The Omen to We Need to Talk About Kevin, to name a few—has been devoted to parents coming to terms with the possibility that their child may be pure evil. But grappling with a potentially holy offspring can be equally fraught, or so suggests The Oldest Boy, a play written by Sarah Ruhl currently having its DC premiere courtesy of Spooky Action Theater under the direction of Kathryn Chase Bryer.
Billed as “a play in three ceremonies,” The Oldest Boy debuted in New York in 2014 and was written by Ruhl in response to events happening in her own life at the time. The prolific and much-lauded playwright began writing the play after giving birth to twins as a way of coming to terms with the constant push and pull of motherhood. When her children’s Tibetan nanny, Yang Zom, told Ruhl of a couple she knew who were the parents of an extraordinary son, she, like any good playwright, took this tale and wove her own personal experiences into it to create something that’s both intensely personal and universally resonant.
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Our entry point into this story is Mother (Jenna Sokolowski), a Catholic-raised American woman married to Father (Rafael Untalan), a Tibetan man who grew up in India and now lives in and owns a restaurant in the United States. When a Buddhist monk (Franklin Dam) and lama (Steve Lee) appear one day at their door claiming that their 3-year-old son is actually a reincarnated Tibetan lama and informing them that they’re there to take him to monastery in India, Mother and Father are forced to make an impossible decision between their faith and the bonds of family. (Every parent hopes their child will be special, but, you know… be careful what you wish for.)
Sokolowski’s character, presumably acting as a stand-in for Ruhl herself, is a quietly captivating force trapped between two worlds. Her understated performance as an everywoman caught up in extraordinary circumstances is both believable and heart-wrenching. From the moment she steps onto the stage, Mother breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience—she’s the only character to do so, and it makes the play feel more like a one-woman show with ancillary characters than an ensemble piece, but also helps the audience empathize with her character and the choices she must make. Untalan does an excellent job embodying his character but is given far less to work with in the script than Sokolowski.
The Oldest Boy from Spooky Action Theater closes June 30, 2019. Details and tickets
Their son is played not by a young actor but by a puppet designed by Matthew Pauli and operated by puppeteer Matthew Marcus and Al Twanmo as the reincarnated spirit of the deceased lama. Joined by dancer Stefany Pesta, the three beautifully bring the aforementioned ceremonies to life on a versatile set by Vicki R. Davis. Under Bryer’s direction, the cast uses every inch of the space and keeps things moving despite the script being short on actual plot points.
Fittingly, The Oldest Boy is more of a meditation on motherhood than anything else—the central conflict is presented early on the play, and the struggle is over whether Mother will be able to follow her newfound faith and give up her son (and devotion to Western-style attachment parenting) or defy her husband’s culture and keep her family intact. Along the way, she touches on the isolation of motherhood and the difficulty of connecting across cultures and religions. It’s fitting that her son is represented by a puppet, caught as he is between his parents and his destiny, being pulled in every direction as if on strings. The resulting musings are often beautiful and poetic—with allusions to Mary and Joseph and pronouncements from Father that “my mother was my country”—if lacking in dynamic action, and yet the resolution still somehow struck me as abrupt and unrealistic.
“The mother of an adult child sees her work completed and undone at the same time,” wrote Eula Biss. The events of The Oldest Boy are fantastical and magical, but they represent the very real process of having to constantly let go of one’s child over and over again as they grow and go. In that way, it suits Spooky Action’s mission perfectly, and leaves audiences with much to think about on their way home.
The Oldest Boy by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Featuring Franklin Dam, Steve Lee, Matthew Marcus, Stefany Pesta, Jenna Sokolowski, Al Twanmo, and Rafael Untalan. Assistant director: Bridget Grace Sheaff. Sound design: David Crandall. Set design: Vicki R. Davis. Lighting design: Max Doolittle. Costume design: Julie Cray Leong. Props design: Elizabeth Long. Puppet construction: Matthew Pauli. Movement direction, music, and cultural consultant: Tuyet Thi Pham. Rehearsal stage manager: Kate Kilbane. Performance stage manager: Kathryn Dooley. Assistant stage manager: Olivia Viola. Produced by Spooky Action Theater. Reviewed by John Bavoso.
This article was produced as part of the DC Arts Writing Fellowship, a project of Day Eight conducted in partnership with DC Theatre Scene through the support of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.