Review: ‘The Oldest Boy’ at Spooky Action Theater

Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy is a graceful meditation on motherhood: its joys, its sorrows, and its unforeseeable costs. Director Kathryn Chase Bryer offers a visually lovely and emotionally moving version of this magical play.

Jenna Sokolowski, Franklin Dam, and Steve Lee in 'The Oldest Boy' at Spooky Action Theater. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.
Jenna Sokolowski, Franklin Dam, and Steve Lee in ‘The Oldest Boy’ at Spooky Action Theater. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

It begins with two unassuming yet charming Tibetans, a Monk (Franklin Dam) and a Lama (Steve Lee), who knock on the door of the devoted wife and mother, Jenna Sokolowski (Mother). She is an American, married to a Tibetan, Rafael Untalan (Father). Their son, Tenzin, is still a toddler. The Tibetans apparently believe that he is a reincarnated lama, or tulku. Tulkus are usually enthroned at 4 or 5 and sent to a monastery for training by age 6. The couple will be able to visit him on weekends, but they will have to move to India. Mother is about to face one of the greatest challenges of motherhood; the possibility of having to give up her child. The monks are gentle with her, aware that to an American the idea might be strange or even frightening.

Tenzin (a puppet, voiced by Al Twanmo) is subjected to tests; can he identify the possessions of his previous incarnation, the Tibetan’s beloved teacher? He passes and becomes increasingly comfortable in his new role. Mother’s hopes to teach him at home, however, are soon dashed. She would have to meditate for decades, and that would only be the beginning!

Sokolowski and Untalan make an endearing couple, deeply in love yet struggling with their temperamental and familial differences. Matthew Marcus as the Puppeteer, Stefany Pesta as the Dancer, and Al Twanmo as the Oldest Boy of the title contribute appealing performances.

The set design (Vicki R. Davis) is unusually stylish and spare. Music and Sound Design (David Crandall) is beautifully modulated and suited to the text. Lighting Design (Max Doolittle) and Costume Design (Julie Cray Leong) are equally appropriate and attractive. I did find the puppet design a bit jarring; the large eyes seemed somewhat scary. But perhaps that was the intention.

Mother seems to accept her family’s radical change in circumstances, although she does question the need for her to give up her son. The larger issues of Buddhist philosophy, the nature of reincarnation, the primacy of compassion, and the role of women are not the focus in this instance. Mother bases her decisions on what she believes is best for her child.

Jenna Sokolowski, Matthew Marcus, and Al Twanmo in 'The Oldest Boy' at Spooky Action Theater. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.
Jenna Sokolowski, Matthew Marcus, and Al Twanmo in ‘The Oldest Boy’ at Spooky Action Theater. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Director Kathryn Chase Bryer is the Associate Artistic Director of Imagination Stage and has directed over 50 productions. Here, she directs with a light touch and brings us an enchanting experience.

[Read John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column on The Oldest Boy.]

Running Time: 2 hours, with one 10-minute intermission.

The Oldest Boy plays through June 30, 2019, at Spooky Action Theater, 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 248-0301, or purchase them online.

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Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCMTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She is a playwright and director. An early draft of her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied English at Barnard, and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe. Her father, Carleton Jones, long-time Real Estate Editor and features writer for the Baltimore Sun, inspired her to become a writer.