Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Oldest Boy

photo: T. Charles Erickson
Tenzin is three years old. He lives in what is described as "an American city with a large Tibetan community." His Mother (Celia Keenan-Bolger) is a white American academic, whose literary specialty is the use of religious symbolism in the works of atheist authors. His Father (James Yaegashi) is a Buddhist exile who owns a Tibetan restaurants. In all respects, Tenzin appears to be a normal toddler. That is, until the day two monks arrive at the family's house and inform his parents that they believe him to be the reincarnation of a venerated Lama.

Sarah Ruhl's The Oldest Boy, currently in previews at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, looks at issues of faith, family, and sacrifice through cultural and religious lenses. The characters, particularly Mother and Father (with the exception of Tenzin--the title character--no other figures are given names), are forced to question the duties they owe to their past, their future, and their culture. When the monks ask permission to take Tenzin to India to be "enthroned,"
and educated so that he may achieve his full potential within the Buddhist tradition, the American notions of childhood and family are placed in contrast with the Tibetan monastic custom. The family must decide whether to keep their son at home, in America, or sacrifice his life for the well-being of a country he will likely never see.

The results are often moving, thought-provoking, and poetic. This is the most accomplished play I've seen from the prolific Ruhl, whose liberal use of whimsy can sometimes leave her work on the wrong side of twee. She blends realism and imagination in just the right doses here. The overall story gives us not just a portrait of one individual family's experiences within the context of Tibetan Buddhism, but a fairly striking picture of the culture-in-exile itself.

The cast--which includes James Saito and Jon Norman Schneider as the monks, and Ernest Abuba as The Oldest Boy--is uniformly excellent, though special mention goes to Keenan-Bolger. Hers is a mammoth role, both physically and emotionally, rarely leaving the stage during the play's two-hour duration. Her character's emotions turn on a dime, as she and her husband process the situation with their son. Keenan-Bolger gives a beautiful, committed performance, matched in intensity by Yaegashi, who conveys the conflicted soul of a loving father who, as an exile, understands the importance his son could hold for his culture.

Director Rebecca Taichman's physical production is smooth and stunning. It feels wrong to discuss it in too much detail, as reading about some of the effects before seeing the play could take away from the magic on stage. I'll simply say that I've rarely seen Lincoln Center's small, three-quarter thrust space used so well.

[Running time: 2 hours, with one intermission. Sixth row center-right orchestra seat, LincTix.]

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