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