Playwright's ambitious 'Passion' playing D.C.

WASHINGTON — Call it Sarah Ruhl’s wild ride through the nation’s capital.

As SRO auds greet playwright Ruhl’s “The Clean House” at Woolly Mammoth Theater here, one of four theaters premiering the work this season, D.C.’s Arena Stage is readying her latest effort, an epic called “Passion Play, a Cycle,” for a Sept. 8 bow.

“Passion Play” is a triptych of three one-act plays that explore religious and other attitudes over a 400-year span. It is an ambitious project on the scale of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Robert Schenkkan’s “The Kentucky Cycle,” one that features 12 actors playing 30 roles in more than 100 costumes on three sets.

Presented in one sitting, it is billed as a dark comedy that examines such timeless themes as truth, love and belief. Act one is set in 1575 in a village in northern England when Queen Elizabeth has banned all religious plays. Act two moves to Oberammergau, Germany, where passion plays have been performed since the Middle Ages. Act three is a more contemporary look at religious rhetoric, politics and theatricality in the U.S.

Ruhl began the project 10 years ago while studying at Brown U. The first two plays became her master’s thesis under professor and playwright Paula Vogel, and later were part of a new-play reading series at Arena Stage. A suitably impressed Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director, commissioned Ruhl to write a new play about America, which resulted in “Passion’s” third installment.

Ruhl is welcomed by artistic directors for her inventive and lyrical approach. Woolly Mammoth’s Howard Shalwitz praises her original ear and a style that he calls “poetic but not flowery.”

Arena’s Smith says she has been stunned by Ruhl’s writing since inviting her to read “Eurydice” at a play-reading series. “Great writers of the theater are always poets,” Smith says. But unlike many, Ruhl has no problem driving narratives, she adds.

Ruhl’s previous plays include “Orlando,” “Eurydice,” “Melancholy Play” and “Late: A Cowboy Song.” “Orlando” was her first professionally produced play (at the Piven Theater Workshop in Chicago), while “Eurydice” was her first to be performed by large regional theaters (Madison Rep and Berkeley Rep). While those works signaled her presence as a promising new writer, “Clean House” has clearly catapulted Ruhl into a higher echelon, much like “The Pavilion” did for Craig Wright.

Since its premiere last September at the Yale Repertory Theater, “Clean House” has drawn accolades for its original characters, poetic dialogue and deft touch of comedy and drama. It was a Pulitzer finalist and winner of the 2003-04 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

Seven productions are slated for next season, including Lincoln Center, Chicago’s Goodman Theater, Milwaukee Rep, Cincinnati Playhouse, Denver Center Theater Company and San Francisco’s TheaterWorks.

The attention is all a bit startling for the suddenly hot 30-year-old playwright. “You never expect such things,” she says. Ruhl modestly suggests part of “Clean House’s” appeal is its meaty roles for women in their 50s.

As for her lyrical bent, Ruhl says she did start out as a poet before catching the playwriting bug, and is conscious about how words appear on the page: “Cadence is important to me.”

She says the mixture of comedy and drama in her plays is intentional and a more accurate reflection of life than a specific genre.

Ruhl is completing “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” a commission by Playwrights Horizons in New York, as well as other projects for Berkeley Rep and Los Angeles’ Cornerstone Theater Company.

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