AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Jessica Thebus
Presented by Marin Theatre Company
Boyer Theatre
397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, CA / Phone (415) 388-5208

Reviewed by Judy Richter

An American mother faces a terrible dilemma when she's asked to send her 3-year-old son to India in Sarah Ruhl's "The Oldest Boy," presented by Marin Theatre Company in its West Coast premiere.

The dilemma begins when a Buddhist Monk (Wayne Lee) and Lama (Jinn S. Kim), clad in their saffron robes, come calling and tell Mother (Christine Albright) that her son probably is the reincarnation of Lama's teacher, who died three years ago.

Assuming that he is that reincarnation, they want her and her husband, Father (Kurt Uy), to allow them to take him from his home in an unnamed American city to a monastery in India for his education, presumably for the rest of his boyhood.

Mother, who was raised Catholic, is appalled even though she has been trying to embrace the faith of Father, a Tibetan-born Buddhist.

There's a flashback to the time when Mother and Father met. Lacking an umbrella in a rainstorm, she took shelter in his restaurant, where she loved his food. They then fell in love even though he was committed to a marriage arranged by his family and she was engaged to another man.

In a bit of a parallel to Mother's later dilemma, Father must choose between wanting to marry her and feeling obligated to honor his cultural tradition of an arranged marriage. He ultimately chooses love over tradition and marries Mother.

When their son arrives a few months later, they name him Tenzin. He's represented by a puppet manipulated by Melvign Badiola and Jed Parsario (they also dance) and voiced by Tsering Dorjee (Bawa), who doubles as the show's choreographer. The puppetry is by Jesse Mooney-Bullock.

After the Buddhist visitors' revelation about Tenzin, Mother becomes friendly with the Lama, telling him that she, too, lost her teacher. He was her academic adviser who supported her PhD research. After his death, she felt lost and discontinued her studies.

Playwright Ruhl wraps everything up rather neatly. Along the way, she inserts impressively colorful Buddhist ceremonies.

Jessica Thebus directs this fascinating play, which benefits greatly from Albright's performance as Mother. She conveys Mother's conflicting emotions without becoming overwrought. It's a carefully delineated, virtuoso performance.

Her male colleagues are all noteworthy, especially Kim as the kindly, insightful Lama.

The set is by Collette Pollard with lighting by Jeff Rowlings, sound design and composition by Chris Houston, and costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt.

MTC's program for the play offers background information about reincarnation and recent Tibetan history. An interview with Ruhl describes the experience that led to her writing this absorbing play.

It runs about two hours with one intermission.

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