Sarah Ruhl's beautiful new play The Oldest Boy at Lincoln Center is informed by a quiet release into Destiny. A mother faces an unthinkable choice: a Midwesterner, she is married to a Tibetan restaurateur. Now when a lama and monk (James Saito and Jon Norman Schneider) come to her apartment to claim her son is a reincarnated beloved teacher, she is asked to give him up for the higher purpose, to be enthroned and educated at a monastery, far away from parental care. If Ruhl were working on a larger canvas, she might be making the kinds of spectacles for which Julie Taymor is best known.
The mother's dilemma allows Ruhl to utilize dramatic techniques borrowed from world culture: puppets, shadows behind scrims, ritual Buddhist dance. But here at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater the setting is intimate even though it explores life and death issues in world culture, features an onstage birth, and travels in its second act to India. A political undercurrent, that Tibetans are forced into exile fleeing the Chinese, making risky mountaintop escapes, illustrates another kind of release into destiny on the world stage.
The boy in question, Tenzin, is prescient at three, onstage a puppet manned by two handlers. His mother is Celia Keenan-Bolger, so fine in the recent productions of Glass Menagerie, and Peter and the Starcatcher. Like the Biblical mother in the King Solomon parable, the decision is mostly hers. Her husband (James Yaegashi) knows the honor that has come to his family. Under Rebecca Taichman's able direction, the final letting go is deeply and dramatically transformative.
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