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 31/2-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."
That imagination compelled Ruhl to begin "The Clean House" in "metaphysical Connecticut" (the play's locale) with a joke told in Portuguese by an appealing Brazilian maid who refuses to clean. Later in the play, a woman's living room doubles as the sea; it's up to the actors, director and designers to figure out how to make that believable.
Says Woolly Mammoth Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, who directed an early reading of "Passion Play's" third leg at Arena: "She's becoming famous for her impossible stage directions. . . . Her writing is an invitation to a production. She really believes in letting other people take it and run with it."
Perhaps that's because Ruhl saw the working side of theater at an early age. Her mother acted with scrappy, serious-minded troupes in Chicago. That was before small theaters were professional, and Ruhl's mother managed to keep her hand in community theater while raising Sarah and her older sister, Kate.
"I grew up with her hauling me to rehearsals," Ruhl says. She reports that her mother had her first paying job recently at Chicago's Court Theater: "They washed her stockings. She was so excited about that."
Despite the maternal influence, Sarah Ruhl had no intention of studying theater when she went to Brown. She says she was "lured to the dark side" when she asked her teacher Paula Vogel to advise a thesis. Vogel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Baltimore Waltz" and "How I Learned to Drive," declined.
"I'm not an academic," Vogel explained.
But, she told Ruhl, if you want professorial guidance with a play . . .
In fact, Ruhl had something in mind: a tale about villagers and a passion play they were performing. Ruhl wrote it, and Vogel managed to get it produced at Trinity Rep. Ruhl says that sold her on the profession -- much to her surprise.
"I loved doing it," she says. "And it felt very natural to me. But it wasn't something where I thought, 'Oh, you can make a life out of this.' It just seemed too pleasurable. It seemed decadent."
But when Vogel took Ruhl and a group of fellow graduate students to her house in Cape Cod after "How I Learned to Drive" won the Pulitzer, Ruhl realized writing plays could be a career. She recalls, "We stood out on the porch and looked at the ocean view, and Paula said, 'Look: This is what playwriting can buy. I bought my house with this play.' " (A writer's royalties at a relatively small theater like Woolly Mammoth might be $8,000 or $10,000, while in a bigger theater like Arena, the playwright's take can be three or four times that.)
Ruhl had already graduated with a degree in English, taken two years off, spent time in Chicago and New York writing, teaching arts education in public schools, "having a million jobs trying to stay afloat" before returning to Brown for her MFA.
She has been writing and rising steadily ever since, creating plays that aren't easy to categorize. (An anthology of her plays will be published this fall.) "The Clean House" is tight and funny, skirting the polemics you might expect from a scenario that begins with a demanding WASP doctor and her recalcitrant immigrant maid. Yet it deepens by sly degrees, sweeping the audience on a surprising cloud of feeling as the characters deal with terminal illness in unorthodox ways.
Shalwitz observes, "It's a big statement about life and death, and how death can be transforming in a positive way for the people around it."
When Ruhl was 20, her father died of cancer. "It's very much about my dad, in a way," she says. "His sense of humor as he went through it. And humor being kind of a saving grace." Her grandmothers both died of breast cancer, as well. "So yeah, the play's very personal in a certain sense."
The scale and subject of "Passion Play" could hardly be more different, but then Ruhl seems to want to avoid doing the same thing twice. Other plays include a modern adaptation of "Eurydice" in which the heroine questions whether she really wants to come back from the underworld after all; "Late: A Cowboy Song," which Ruhl calls a "romantic western" about a married modern woman outside Pittsburgh who runs off with "a lady cowboy"; and "Melancholy Play," in which everyone can't help falling in love with a beautifully sad woman. (She becomes happy, and all is thrown into confusion.)
"There's not anyone else like her," says Vogel, who is naturally partial to her pupil. (Ruhl dedicated "Passion Play" to Vogel.) "There are no models to refer to. Ten years from now, we'll say, 'It's rather Sarah Ruhl.' "
The models Ruhl cites are real mavericks: Vogel, Caryl Churchill, Maria Irene Fornes. (The Cuban-born Fornes has written more than three dozen plays, directing many of them herself in the off-off-Broadway scene since the early 1960s, but the current lack of her works on U.S. stages is a real sore spot with Ruhl. "It's disgusting," she says.) Is it coincidence that Ruhl's pantheon is all women? "I love a lot of men, too," she asserts, then adds Elizabeth Egloff to the list.
Smith points to Ruhl's background as a poet, yet offers this: "She's able to drive plot, which a lot of playwrights whom we think of as poetic are not able to do."
Says Ruhl of the Ruhl style: "I tend to like the ancient and the modern up against each other. 'Clean House' borrows from no classical structure, so it's the least mythical, but in a way the iconic magic of it makes it feel like it's part of a mythology. I hope so, anyway. But 'Passion Play' certainly has to do with the contemporary and the ancient, and so does 'Eurydice.' And even 'Late: A Cowboy Song' -- it's really a contemporary play, but I'm interested in the old myth of the cowboy."
Whatever the elements, Ruhl's writing has sparked a lot of interest. Half a dozen theaters are credited with developing "The Clean House," meaning they sponsored workshops or staged readings. Ruhl says "Eurydice" has had 13 readings throughout the country. Did she have to actually attend all this "development"?
"I was really young," she says, "and I didn't know how to say no. Still don't know how to say no. But I was curious. So if someone said, 'We'll get you a plane ticket to Seattle,' I said, 'Sure, I'll go to Seattle.' " Ruhl adds that squiring such relatively smaller, "finished" plays from theater to theater was manageable, "but if I'd used that process for 'Passion Play,' I think I'd be a complete wreck." The completion of "Passion Play" has been under Arena's auspices alone, and Ruhl reckons, "I really needed that focus, rather than taking it to 13 theaters and having everyone pitch in."
And the travel is wearing. "I'm getting to know LAX way better than I should," she says. She lives in Los Angeles now, but only until her fiance finishes his medical residency next year at UCLA. She also wants to have kids someday, "and I can't really see being on a plane constantly if that happens."
With "Clean House" all over the country this season, Ruhl is likely to look like an overnight sensation, especially since she has yet to make her mark in New York. Says Shalwitz, "It's been pretty quick, but it's not like she hasn't laid the groundwork."
And the ride hasn't been frustration-free. "It's just an anxiety-ridden profession," Ruhl says. "I have more white hairs at age 31 than I should have."
They don't show.
"I pluck them," she says with a laugh. "I grew up with my mother, watching her go through the thing of, you know, the charge of being in a play, the sadness of not being in a play. So I think playwrights are really [messed] up people because we're really introverted and we want to be alone to write our play, and if we don't have solitude we're complaining about it. And then you have the time alone at your desk and you say, 'Oh, I wish I could see people.' "
So why do it?
Ruhl grins at the question. "On some level I'm really not equipped to do much else."
That answer doesn't wash; she's an Ivy League graduate. She blushes as a high, demure giggle escapes.
"I don't really know why I do it," she says, trying to pin it down. "I think it's important. Many days I think it's important for the cultural health of the world we're living in. Other days I think, 'This is a really useless activity; the world is falling apart, better to be a nurse.' But I really would be a bad nurse."
So she's writing more plays. One, a commission for Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan, is called "Dead Man's Cell Phone." "It's kind of about cell phones, kind of about invisible connections between dead people and alive people. That seems to be a theme I keep returning to."
She also has a commission from Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles. Her job is to write about the lives of local 20-year-olds. She has interviewed campus Young Republicans, Compton mothers with addiction issues and Latina students, getting her assumptions challenged at every turn. "You're there to collect stories," she says, "and you turn off the judgment. You just hear what they have to say. And it's fascinating what that simple thing does, that little act of listening."
It will indeed be a busy year, yet Ruhl will make a point of attending "The Clean House" when it plays her home town at the Goodman Theatre. "I can barely find the time to get married," she frets. "It's hilarious."
And as for the Vogel dictum: Will "The Clean House" buy Ruhl a house?
"I hope," she says, "that it will buy me rent at a spacious apartment in Brooklyn. I think if it does that, it will be doing its job."