Initially awkward and perplexing, but ultimately rewarding once its calculated risks pay off, Rinne Groff’s “The Ruby Sunrise” is a thoughtful exploration of the mechanics of storytelling, of the ways in which truth can be compromised and histories revised. Intertwining an account of an impassioned woman’s attempt to perfect a prototype television system on an Indiana farm in 1927 with her daughter’s struggle to have her story told in a Manhattan TV studio 25 years later, this is an intriguing work that shows its hand only gradually in Oskar Eustis’ challenging production.
The play was a savvy though by no means safe choice for Eustis’ first directing assignment since taking the artistic helm of the Public Theater this year. He previously staged the up-and-coming playwright’s imaginative work last year at the Actors Theater of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays in a production that later moved to Trinity Rep, where Eustis was a.d.
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Groff’s targeting of the dishonesty of television, of right-wing political paranoia and of free-thinking individuals pitted against corporate bullies makes the play a good fit for a liberal institution like the Public. Its deconstruction of the process of creating a narrative in which fact, fiction, memory and manipulation overlap and blur pertains as much here to the magic of stagecraft as it does to the distorting lens of a television industry ruled by concerns of sponsorship, censorship, budgets and consumer caution.
But the play’s abrupt transitions between naturalistic, melodramatic and comic tones make for a lumpy first act; as a result, the actors’ work seems inconsistent and the audience’s patience is tested. The purpose becomes clearer only later on with “persistence of vision” — to borrow a phrase from the title character — pulling back to reveal a diagram of storytelling as a complex assembly of often ill-fitting parts. “A person is allowed to look at this world and then dream of ways for it to be different,” says Ruby’s daughter. That sense of making things better, of aligning reality with one’s idealistic view of what it should be, is a key theme.
Ruby (Marin Ireland) is described by her boozy, hard-bitten Aunt Lois (Anne Scurria) as a “crafty dreamer.” Having fled to the farm to escape her abusive and alcoholic father, Ruby tinkers in the barn with her invention as she dreams of bringing the world closer together through enlightenment: “Television will be the end of war,” she predicts. “Who could bear to see war right in your own living room?” But despite being one step ahead of more prominent engineers in the field, her dreams short-circuit.
The feisty, driven quality of Ireland’s Ruby is echoed in a more sophisticated version years later in her equally determined daughter, Lulu (Maggie Siff), a script coordinator working for TV producer Martin Marcus (Richard Masur). Just as Ruby allowed her aunt’s sweet-natured student boarder, Henry (Patch Darragh), to nurture his romantic feelings for her in exchange for technical equipment from his college science lab, Lulu sparks up an advantageous attachment with talented writer Tad (Jason Butler Harner). Soon after she plants the idea in his head, Ruby’s story becomes the subject of a teleplay.
In clever scene changes set to eclectic music selections and orchestrated by an ensemble of costumed stagehands, Eugene Lee’s rustic farm set transforms into a 1950s TV studio at which Lulu battles to honor her mother’s story. (The production makes resourceful use of Martinson Hall’s cavernous shell of a stage.) She takes the many obstacles in stride until Elizabeth Hunter (Ireland), the actress slated to play Ruby, is blacklisted and removed from the project, replaced by a blond bubblehead (Audra Blaser).
The explosive scene in which Siff’s Lulu quits her job in disgust is the play’s dramatic high point. Also strong is Ireland’s incisive single scene as the tainted actress (clearly inspired by Kim Hunter), who grasps the essence of Ruby’s story like no one else, providing a soulful glimpse of the blinkered way in which the world views women of conviction. The double casting works well, not only with Ireland but with Darragh and Scurria as actors playing Henry and Lois in the telepic. The latter, especially, draws a sharp contrast between an embittered frump and a crisply turned-out, chain-smoking diva in the Tallulah Bankhead mold.
Groff wraps up all the unwieldy elements in assured fashion as the story is reinvented before our eyes and before TV cameras on a studio set and in B&W footage on an overhead screen. Materializing in a surreal gray zone somewhere between reality and fiction, the story is artificially manicured, told in the hokey style of the day, yet somehow true to Lulu’s sainted vision of her imperfect mother. Watching from the studio, Lulu is brought closer together with the spirit of Ruby, giving this reflective, ambitious play unexpected emotional resonance.