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'The Oldest Boy' Brings Tibetan Buddhism to the Stage

Sarah Ruhl’s newest play imagines life as the mother of a reincarnated Tibetan lama.

The Oldest Boy opens on an amusingly modern moment: a young woman sits on a pillow in her living room, meditating, baby monitor on one side of her and smart phone on the other. This new play by renowned playwright Sarah Ruhl is all about cultures colliding, and about what happens to a white America woman, married to a Tibetan man, who is one day visited by a pair of monks and told that her toddler son is the reincarnation of an important religious figure, a lama. What is a mother to do, when choosing the right path for herself and her child?

"I wanted there to be little or no doubt in the play that the child was in fact a reincarnation," says Ruhl, "so that the characters in the play, when presented with the news, could be more concerned with the question 'Now what?' rather than, to my mind, with the less interesting question of 'Is he or isn't he?'" It's a smart choice, and in this world where lamas do have a spiritual power and can pick their next reincarnations, the choice Tenzin's parents have to make is less about their specific situation (the boy is the only character who even has a name) and more about the relatable challenges of parenthood and of losing one's child.

From the rituals of bowing and butter tea to the extraordinary authentic costumes for the enthronement ceremony, this play is a thoughtful representation of the intricacies of Tibetan culture, from the perspective of an outsider honestly trying to learn them. It poses the question of how far one woman can go to adopt a culture that she is not born into, and the young family goes as far as a monastery in India to find out.

The Oldest Boy is not just about Buddhism and the fear of letting go; it is also about storytelling. The characters recount much of the story either directly to the audience or to each other, from the extended tale of how the child's parents met to the mother's hilarious-despite-itself story of how her thesis advisor died in the middle of an argument about Heidegger. While the first act strays into the overly expositional, packing in enormous amounts of backstory, those moments of sharing one's story with a sympathetic stranger are crucial to understanding the spirit of the piece.

Also central is the depiction of the boy himself, represented by a Japanese-style bunraku puppet voiced by "The Oldest Boy" (Ernest Abuba) and manipulated by two other members of the chorus. While the puppet may seem an odd choice at first, both for its conflation of Tibetan and Japanese art and its overt artifice amongst the otherwise naturalistic acting, what the cast manages to do with the device is very clever. Tenzin is immensely fragile cradled in the adults' arms, yet can soar through the air with energy, and when the Oldest Boy takes on a life of his own at the end of the piece, it is a beautiful, sentimental moment.

The set is a gorgeous, open circular space, and while director Rebecca Taichman has not really staged the play to have the audience on three sides, the spacious and aesthetically simple scene transforms easily between a living room, the restaurant the boy's father runs and a Buddhist monastery by simply substituting couches and coffee tables for benches with intricate designs. The raised stage behind the circle, meanwhile, features costumed dancers, chanting monks and mountainous backdrops that bring exiled Tibet into the lives of these characters.

Celia Keenan-Bolger as the mother is the perfect combination of fiercely dedicated to her child and utterly lost in her own life—her quest to find "home" drives much of the play. The father, meanwhile, played by James Yaegashi, is harder to relate to, but his silence and more distant attitude demonstrate clearer than words how much the man struggles to reconcile his Tibetan culture and refugee past. Perhaps the most fascinating character, however, is the old lama, played by James Saito, who is simultaneously the villain trying to take the child away from his parents and a surprisingly vulnerable man who has just lost the beloved teacher who raised him.

The Oldest Boy celebrates the role of a teacher as another sort of parent, whether a Buddhist monk or a professor mentoring a doctoral student. This intimate bond is not opposed to that of motherhood but instead gives that relationship more depth and complexity. While the boy's mother is still struggling to continue finding meaning and joy in literature after her professor's death, she witnesses her son growing that bond with the old lama and finally begins to heal.

Ruhl's play brings up all sorts of fascinating issues, from the struggles of Tibetan refugees to defining a real American culture (Is an American nothing more than their coffee order?). The sometimes naturalistic, sometimes presentational style of acting can be distracting at times, but ultimately, this is one woman's story that she has chosen to tell the audience in whatever form she can. 

The world of The Oldest Boy, imbued with Buddhist spirituality, is one that many might find seductive, and is a joy to experience as an audience. Even when struggling to make the difficult choice to give up their child, Tenzin's parents belong to a world filled with faith, love and the knowledge that even after many incarnations, life goes on. 

The Oldest Boy plays at Lincoln Center through December 28.

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