The Golden Ruhl: Playwright Has A Midas Touch

Sarah Ruhl at a rehearsal for
Sarah Ruhl at a rehearsal for "Passion Play, a Cycle," now at Arena Stage. Her "Clean House" will soon be performed the world over. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 4, 2005

Sarah Ruhl is in a rare position for a playwright who has yet to make a splash in New York: She can bank on having a very good year.

"The Clean House," Ruhl's comedy about house cleaning and mortality, has been (ahem) sweeping the country. Woolly Mammoth's immaculate production in Washington closed last month, and companies from coast to coast and beyond are putting this 2005 Pulitzer finalist on the boards, with the play's New York debut at Lincoln Center still a full year away.

Told that nearly half a dozen theaters will present "The Clean House" next March alone (this includes Canadian productions and the European premiere in Sheffield, England), Ruhl nearly chokes on her club sandwich.

"Really?" she gasps. Yet in a trice, the slender, 31-year-old strawberry blonde regains the composure you'd expect from someone who studied Truth and Beauty (poetry, that is) at Brown. "And Australia just chimed in," she reports matter-of-factly, diving back into her brunch.

She has snubbed the rubbery muffins and iffy fruit of the standard buffet; the sandwich was made fresh for her. If Ruhl looks a bit delicate, and flinches when a tray of dirty dishes clatters behind her -- "That was loud," she says with understatement -- she seems to know what she wants.

And her next act is bold. This weekend Arena Stage has raised the curtain on Ruhl's ambitious three-part drama, "Passion Play, a Cycle," and the topics are those traditional minefields: religion and politics. Each of the cycle's plays follows the dilemmas of actors performing "The Passion of Christ" in eras that stop just shy of the Mel Gibson "The Passion of the Christ" phenomenon. The first segment is set in Elizabethan England, the second in Hitler's Germany and the third in America during the Reagan administration. World leaders make brief appearances.

"There's kind of a split between the roles people play and who they are in real life," Ruhl says.

The second part was inspired by Hitler's fascination with the traditional religious pageant as performed at Oberammergau: "He loved the Passion because it was so anti-Semitic." And the same question plagued Ruhl as she discovered the Nazi affiliations of the Oberammergau actors. "I thought, that is so strange. How is it possible that a man was speaking Christ's words and was also a Nazi at the same time?"

Part 3 follows a Vietnam vet who comes home to South Dakota and plays Pilate. Says Ruhl, "It's a little bit about the religious rhetoric that politicians use, but also the experience of being religious in the American Midwest."

"She is in territory that not many playwrights are in, to be so purely about religion and politics," says Molly Smith, Arena's artistic director. The first two plays of the cycle were begun when Ruhl was a student at Brown. The first part debuted as part of a student workshop at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence; Parts 1 and 2 were staged together at the Actors Centre in London. Arena commissioned the cycle's final installment, and is presenting the world premiere of all three plays as a single 3 1/2 -hour evening; Smith is directing.

Ruhl didn't begin with a triptych in mind, and even when the third play was nearly completed, she expected each segment to stand alone. It was Smith who suggested they might be stronger together. Smith thinks the thematic echoes across the eras will benefit from the bundling, as will Ruhl's quietly daring style.

"There is a huge sense of this theatrical imagination at work," Smith says, "that would not be as clear in three separate evenings."

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