Television isn’t the only thing that gets invented in “The Ruby Sunrise,” Rinne Groff’s marvel of a play, now at Providence, R.I.’s Trinity Rep after an earlier run at Louisville, Ky.’s Humana Festival. The play is a unique creation, presenting two intertwined tales about the promise of TV and the power of narrative, while simultaneously exploring the art of storytelling as it pertains to the American love of reinvented lives.
In one strand, young Midwestern runaway Ruby is on the verge of inventing the basic principles of TV transmission in 1927 in the Indiana barn of her alcoholic aunt. In the other, her 24-year-old daughter, a script girl during the early days of television in 1952, seizes a chance to tell her mother’s story of how she came close to inventing the machine that would bring “moving pictures (to) your living room.”
The play starts as a conventional, homespun narrative depicting Ruby, obsessed with the possibility of transmitting pictures through the air. Gradually we learn that what Ruby tells us is not necessarily the way it is: She has crafted her biography to suit her needs.
As played with ferocious intensity by Julie Jesneck, Ruby is exasperating and lovable. Just as the young girl is on the verge of a key eureka moment, her world changes dramatically.
So does the play, the acting and even the set, as Eugene Lee’s rural design morphs into 1950s Manhattan at the dawn of the television industry.
Here, the product-hungry world of live network TV is seen devouring and appropriating stories at any cost — as long as the financial cost is low. Tad Rose, a new writer, appears on the scene and seems to have the pluck and skill to finally tell Ruby’s story, especially when he is coached by Ruby’s daughter, Lulu (Jessica Wortham), a script girl. When politics and the pressures of the marketplace become involved, the question arises: Whose story is it, anyway? An ingenious ending gives everyone a claim to Ruby’s tale.
Director Oskar Eustis leads a gifted ensemble of Trinity regulars and guest artists, all of whom have a field day playing a wide range of styles: naturalistic stage acting, snappy screwball comedy and kitchen-sink ’50s TV melodrama.
Anne Scurria plays the aunt with bitter grit as well as a grand-dame actress with old-broad timing (and drop-dead outfits by Deborah Newhall). Jessica Wortham turns from sassy artifice to genuine sentiment without losing her balance. Mauro Hantman plays the writer engagingly, even when he is a heel. Fred Sullivan Jr. and Russell Arden Koplin show they are worthy of some of the brightest dialogue around as the shameless TV producer and the dim ingenue. Jesneck returns to play a blacklisted actress — a nice parallel to Ruby, who feels marginalized by unseen corporate forces.
Eustis keeps all the characters and storylines sharply and smartly defined as the play hurtles toward its climax, with one story going on up on a screen while another is told onstage.
Groff’s artful, poignant play has an odd timeliness, too. “Television will be the end of war, ’cause who could bear it?,” says Ruby at one point. “Who could bear to see war right in your own living room?”