Your feelings about Sarah Ruhl’s touching but
troubling new play, The Oldest Boy — directed by
Rebecca Taichman and now playing at Lincoln Center — will depend on your tolerance for stories where Tibetan
culture propels a white American woman’s spiritual journey.
If that raises hackles, this isn’t your bowl of tsampa.
One day the character known only as Mother — a recovering academic turned spiritual seeker — receives unexpected guests: monks, who announce that her son is the reincarnation of a great lama. Her husband, Father, is a
Tibetan émigré who owns a restaurant. We see them meet-cute there, in flashback. West, meet East! Spirituality, meet rationality! (Ruhl takes some cheap shots at academia. Are we still harping about deconstruction?)
Faced with a precocious child — onstage, a puppet voiced by Ernest Abuba, whose past credits
include the Dalai
— endowed with the eerie ability to speak in koans, the couple must decide whether to let him embrace his ordained destiny.
Ruhl’s real subject here is the pangs of maternal affection. Buddhism’s renunciations provide a poignant metaphor for the successive separations that begin with childbirth and end with death. The playwright’s evocations of motherhood’s inbuilt sorrows
are moving, but her reliance on stale clichés about East and West undermines the whole enterprise. Speaking of academics, Edward Said would’ve had a few things to say about that.