Meditation is nothing new to Sarah Ruhl and Celia Keenan-Bolger, the playwright and star, respectively, of The Oldest Boy, Ruhl's new play in performance at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre.
"We meditated every day before rehearsal. We've sort of fallen off during tech," Keenan-Bolger said during a dinner break from tech rehearsals. "I was thinking the other day, we should have really been meditating during tech," added Ruhl.
The drama opens with the Mother, played by Keenan-Bolger, meditating while using an iPhone app. But her inner peace is quickly disturbed when a monk and a lama appear at her door, claiming that her three-year-old son is the reincarnation of a revered Buddhist teacher. Per Tibetan Buddhism tradition, she is faced with the decision of whether to place him in a monastery in India.
The play was inspired by Ruhl's babysitter, a Tibetan woman who told her about a friend whose child was recognized as a reincarnated lama and was faced with the same decision. Before writing the play, Ruhl, who was raised Catholic, read "basically any book I could get my hands on about Buddhism, about Tibet, about attachment, non-attachment." She arrived at the first day of rehearsal with a suitcase filled with books that quickly became known as the "Sarah Ruhl Library" and assisted the actors in researching topics or themes of the play. Ruhl also conducted interviews with a lama and Tibetan lay people, one of whom told the playwright, "Renunciation is a bit of a foreign concept to Westerners." The concept is something Keenan-Bolger's character, a Cincinnati-born woman who marries a Tibetan man, struggles greatly with.
"I think Buddhism has brought an enormous amount of peace to this character. It's explained some things and made decisions in her life easier," Keenan-Bolger said. "And then she gets to a point with the religion and turns around and is like, 'Now I'm going to ask the greatest thing of all from you,' which is the hardest thing she's ever had to go through. And I think that's a very real way to go through life. You can't just pick and choose the parts of something that are helpful to you. You generally have to take the whole package, and that often means it will be uncomfortable."
Studying the relationship between love and attachment in the Buddhist faith was an education for Keenan-Bolger, who said, "This is more sort of about my own life than it is about the play – this idea of love and what love actually is. I think love, for me in my life and certainly in this character's life, has just been about sharing yourself with someone and having expectations that they will take care of you and you will take care of them. … I think that, particularly in Buddhism, the notion of love is wanting what is best for someone else. I don't know that I ever really have thought of it in those terms. However painful it is for you, that if you truly love someone, all you want is what is best for them. And I think that is a very useful tool in going forward in life and just to sort of reorganize how I have thought about love."
Playing Mother was a new challenge for Keenan-Bolger, who, for most of her career, has been cast as teenagers and young women in shows like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Saved, Peter and the Starcatcher and The Glass Menagerie. When discussing her performance as a mother, the two-time Tony nominee mentioned an essay written by Ruhl that discusses how mothers written for the theatre are generally seen through their son's eyes and are representing a child's version of the mother, saying, "I thought that this play was so moving in what it said about motherhood and what it explored in relationships. I just felt like, 'What an amazing challenge and gift it would be to get to play that part.'"
In playing Mother, Keenan-Bolger is experiencing another first: performing in a play where the writer and director are both women. "I wouldn't say it's been a totally different experience because there are two women running the room, but I do think that there is something special and in touch about the way the room is run," she said. "Equal parts, the sort of good intellectual understanding of the play and of great emotional understanding of the actors and material... There are a lot of amazing directors with a lot of experience and a lot of writers with a lot of experience, but I do think you will have a different perspective if you have more women in the room."
An effort to bring more women in the room was made over the summer, when the activist group The Kilroys released a list of works by female playwrights that are ready for production. Commenting on The List, Ruhl, who has written Stage Kiss, Dead Man's Cell Phone and In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), said, "What I love about the Kilroys is they're creating an alternative cannon for people to read more women's work. If it's read, its excellence will naturally rise. It will rise not because we have to do a woman playwright this season, it will rise because the work is naturally really good."
The title character of The Oldest Boy, Tenzin is represented by a bunraku-style puppet and voiced by Ernest Abuba. The puppet and the actor, Ruhl said, represent the dual nature of the child who has an older person animating him. Adjusting to working with a puppet was a new challenge for Keenan-Bolger, who recalled Ruhl saying to the cast in response to frustrations of working with the puppet, "I think we should talk about the puppet like it's a person."
"That was a big moment for me," Keenan-Bolger said. "If we give it the respect and the weight of just another player in our cast, our relationship to it will change. It just needs to be another part of this and not this inanimate object that gets in the way or slows things down."
Treating the puppet like an actual child tied into the idea of the Tibetan lamas enthroning Tenzin and treating him as a teacher, an idea that Ruhl said she greatly appreciated in comparison with American culture.
"I think our culture actually hates children," she said. "I think we value pregnant women and the style-art effect and we value children's stuff and the idea of having children. But do we want children around in this culture? We like to take pictures of babies and we like to look at pictures of babies. But we don't like having them around in our culture. As a mother of three, I find, for some reason, that I want to make the work more visible."
Bringing the work of a mother, and a mother facing an enormous sacrifice, to the stage resonated deeply with Keenan-Bolger, who said, "I feel like my life is different, having been in this play. My husband has seen two readings of it. His life is different. It does something that makes you really examine the way that we live and think a little bit bigger."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)