Like her if-jokes-could-kill play The Clean House (2006) and her romantic technology-themed satire Dead Man’s Cell Phone (2008), Sarah Ruhl’s delicate drama The Oldest Boy—playing through December 30 at Lincoln Center Theater—requires a certain suspension of disbelief.
For instance, you’ll need to accept the following: that, a) a woman, Mother (The Glass Menagerie‘s Celia Keenan-Bolger, exquisitely moving), alone in her house with just her toddler, is trusting enough to invite two strangers—monks, but strangers nonetheless—into her living room for tea and pleasantries; b) an almost-3-year-old boy is astute enough to identify a book of prayers; c) the woman and her husband (James Yaegashi) can visit India, despite him being, as she describes him, ”a man without a passport”; d) he, a cook/restaurant owner, can deliver her one-month-premature baby; and, most important, e) the aforementioned boy, Tenzin, born to a Tibetan father and Western mother, is a reincarnated lama.
Perhaps it’s more a surrender of disbelief. But beneath the script’s far-fetched notions and the production’s pageantry—the Tibetan dances and processions, including Anita Yavich’s sumptuous costumes and Japhy Weideman’s opulent lighting, are magnificent—The Oldest Boy is a story of a mother and her son. (Tenzin, a.k.a. the Oldest Boy, is portrayed here by a bunraku puppet, carved with deep, expressive eyes and round rosy cheeks.)
While Mother struggles with the prospect of sending her son to a monastery—lamas train from a very young age—Ruhl speaks to all mothers who have ever endured a separation from their children. As Tenzin gets a close-cropped haircut, distracted by a remote airplane, his parents watch from a distance, tears welling in their eyes, their sadness tempered with a touch of pride. ”I will never let you get old, Mama. I will never let you die,” he promises, adopting a wise-beyond-his-years tone (head puppeteer Ernest Abuba provides Tenzin’s soulful voice). Show me a mother who hasn’t made that same pact with her child.
If the second act wanders a bit too far from the monastery—Ruhl works too hard to draw a logical (but labored) parallel between academia and Buddhism—the digression is easily forgiven. Lamas, religion, spirituality, Tibet, China, politics, reincarnation…all big ideas. But, as Mother explains, ”the cruel animal fact of motherhood is bigger than any idea.” B+