Sarah Ruhl’s new play, “The Oldest Boy,” is extremely imaginative and hypnotically beautiful, but the plot is a puzzler. An American woman, the wife of a Tibetan man, is visited by a high-ranking Buddhist priest and informed that her three-year-old son is the reincarnation of a revered Tibetan Lama — and would she kindly allow him to take the boy to his monastery in India. Despite the gorgeous production helmed by Rebecca Taichman, the imperfectly resolved yarn seems suspiciously like a young mother’s post-partum nightmare.
Because the child’s unnamed father, played by James Yaegashi, is so underwritten, the drama hangs on the intellectually uneven tug-of-war between the mother, a heart-tugging role played with grave emotional integrity by Celia Keenan-Bolger, and James Saito’s stern but compassionate Lama. And while it initially seems unthinkable that his preposterous pitch would convince any mother to give up her child, Saito’s beatific Lama makes such a convincing case for reincarnation, this psychologically vulnerable woman finds it impossible to resist.
That’s pretty much the whole story — except for the magic of the storytelling, for which the design team assembled by Taichman should take a deep collective bow.
To accommodate the exquisite artistry of puppeteer Matt Acheson and choreographer Barney O’Hanlon, the set designer Mimi Lien has constructed a set-within-a-set overlooking the main playing area. This elongated shadow-box of a stage (backlit in a heavenly shade of blue by Japhy Weideman) suggests a celestial puppet theater. There is, in fact, a puppet in the play, a sweet-faced wooden rod-puppet (caringly manipulated and voiced by Ernest Abuba), playing the role of the special child (the “Rinpoche”) who is, in fact, the reincarnated spiritual master. Sounds strange, but within the context of the piece, entirely natural.
This little wooden puppet seems to have a life of its own, which is only appropriate for the character of a child who has an inner life that spans many lifetimes. And as Ruhl expands on the basic tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, a colorful procession of puppets and live dancers in full costume slowly glide across the stage of the shadow box to dazzle the eye and dull the mind.
In the second act, the American family travels to a Tibetan monastery in India to observe the elaborate rituals involved in enthroning a reborn high Lama (the “Tulku”). At this point, the agonizing debate between the mother and the high priest about the child’s fate becomes more intense, as does Keenan-Bolger’s moving performance. To underscore the cultural and intellectual differences between them, Saito’s Lama becomes ever more serene and otherworldly as he assumes the role of her spiritual teacher.
Of all the lessons involved in this young American mother’s education, the hardest is the necessity of rejecting the fierce “attachment parenting” practices of her own culture and learning to accept the more selfless non-attachment principles of Buddhism. Just as it’s every new or pregnant mother’s fantasy that her child is special — indeed, a divinity — being separated from her special child is every young mother’s nightmare.
Ruhl’s play is an original and eloquent way of dramatizing that separation anxiety. But although the mother in the play eventually surrenders her child to the monks, her dilemma is so abruptly resolved, we never actually see the decisive moment when she overcomes her natural maternal instincts and makes that choice. No rational argument is made because, in the end, there’s no logic to her choice, just a soothing mystical vision beyond all human understanding.