You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Ruby Sunrise

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.

Ruby, Elizabeth Hunter - Marin Ireland Henry, Paul Benjamin - Patch Darragh Lois, Ethel Reid - Anne Scurria Martin Marcus - Richard Masur Tad Rose - Jason Butler Harner Lulu - Maggie Siff Suzie Tyrone - Audra Blaser

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.

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.

The Ruby Sunrise

Public Theater/Martinson; 199 seats; $50 top

Production: A Public Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Rinne Groff. Directed by Oskar Eustis.

Creative: Sets, Eugene Lee; costumes, Deborah Newhall; lighting, Deb Sullivan; sound, Bray Poor; production stage manager, Buzz Cohen. Opened Nov. 16, 2005. Reviewed Nov. 12. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast: Ruby, Elizabeth Hunter - Marin Ireland Henry, Paul Benjamin - Patch Darragh Lois, Ethel Reid - Anne Scurria Martin Marcus - Richard Masur Tad Rose - Jason Butler Harner Lulu - Maggie Siff Suzie Tyrone - Audra BlaserWith: Ron Brice, Eric Martin Brown, Christine Digiallonardo, Vaneik Echeverria, Jocelyn Greene, Peter McCain, Chad Smith, Eric Thorne.

More Legit

  • Ain't Too Proud review

    Broadway Review: 'Ain't Too Proud'

    In the wake of the long-running “Jersey Boys” and the short-lived “Summer,” director Des McAnuff is back on Broadway with another show built around the song catalog of a music act — and although “Ain’t Too Proud” has all the right sounds and slick moves, this bio-musical of the R&B vocal group the Temptations is [...]

  • 'White Noise' Theater Review: Suzan-Lori Parks

    Off Broadway Review: Daveed Diggs in 'White Noise'

    Any new play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog / Underdog”) demands — and deserves — attention. And in its premiere production at the Public Theater, her latest, “White Noise,” opens with a burst of brainy energy that lasts through the first act. But it takes a nosedive in the sloppy second half, [...]

  • Alexander Dinelaris

    'Jekyll and Hyde' Movie in the Works Based on Broadway Musical

    The Broadway musical “Jekyll and Hyde” is getting the movie treatment from Academy Award winner Alexander Dinelaris. Dinelaris, who is writing and producing the adaptation, won an Oscar for the “Birdman” script and was a co-producer on “The Revenant.” He is producing “Jekyll and Hyde” as the first project under his New York-based development company, [...]

  • Sam Mendes

    Listen: The 'Balls-Out Theatricality' of Sam Mendes

    If you find yourself directing a Broadway play with a cast so big it includes a goose, two rabbits, more kids than you can count and an actual infant, what do you do? If you’re Sam Mendes, you embrace the “balls-out theatricality” of it all. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “There is a kind [...]

  • James Corden Tony Awards

    James Corden to Host 2019 Tony Awards (EXCLUSIVE)

    James Corden has been tapped to once again host the Tony Awards, Variety has learned exclusively. “The Late Late Show” host previously emceed the annual theater awards show in 2016, and won the Tony for best actor in a play for his performance in “One Man, Two Guvnors” in 2012. “I’m thrilled to be returning to [...]

  • Frozen review Broadway

    ‘Frozen’ the Musical Opening in London in 2020

    “Frozen” the musical is coming to London and will open in the West End in fall 2020. The Michael Grandage-directed Disney Theatrical Productions stage show has been on Broadway for a year. Grandage’s production is now set to re-open Andrew Lloyd Webber’s refurbished Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez are behind the [...]

  • Nantucket Sleigh Ride review

    Off Broadway Review: John Guare's 'Nantucket Sleigh Ride'

    Anyone who doesn’t have a cottage on the Cape or the Islands, as they say in Massachusetts, might be puzzled by the title of John Guare’s new play.  “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” is no Revere Beach amusement park ride, but an old whaling term for the death throes of a whale that is still attached to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content