Thomas Jay Ryan
There’s no doubt that Sarah Ruhl is one of the most talented dramatists writing today.
Her plays The Clean House and Eurydice are playful, mythic works that use magical realist techniques to shed light on ordinary situations. She even won the MacArthur Foundation’s so-called “genius grant” in 2006.
Her latest play at Yale Repertory Theatre is ambitious to say the least. With a bold title like Passion Play, a 16-person cast, three acts, and over three-and-a-half hours of playing time, there’s room here for an important play to grow. As it stands, however, this potential mighty oak is merely a sapling.
Across three acts, a series of communities prepares for a local performance of the Passion play, in which Christ is crucified and resurrected. The first act is set in Northern England in 1575 during the reign of Elizabeth I. The second is set in Oberammergau, Bavaria in 1934 at the dawn of Adolf Hitler’s chancellorship in Germany. And the third act is set in Spearfish, South Dakota during both the Vietnam war and the Reagan administration.
Throughout the acts, three constant characters – Mary 1, John the Fisherman, and Pontius the Fish-gutter (as credited in the program) – make up a fascinating love triangle. At the end of each act, the ruler in question (Elizabeth, Hitler, and Reagan) makes a cameo, each portrayed by an underwhelming Kathleen Chalfont. Also appearing throughout are various director characters and the role of the village idiot, which morphs in the third act into the role of Violet, Mary’s daughter.
The characters’ explorations of their roles in society as contrasted with their roles in their local passion plays makes for an interesting concept to say the least. Devotion is pitted against personal selfishness, virginity against primal urges. Ruhl uses repeated characters and situations, sometimes snippets of dialogue, in order to connect the acts. But this stringing together of the various parts into a cohesive whole is largely unsuccessful until the third and final part.
When Ruhl tackles the Vietnam era and the Reagan administration, she’s at her best. She’s clearly most in tune with modern life (or near-modern life), as evidenced by a beautiful scene taking place in a highway tollbooth. Even when writing about the distant past, the lens through which she views dramatic situations is ceaselessly that of the present; that’s what makes her plays so engaging. Along the way, I’d wished that Ruhl had gone beyond drawing simple parallels between characters in England, Bavaria, and the U.S. and focused more on the greater themes at hand.
What eventually emerged as the most prominent concern of the play was the progression of political leadership throughout history. The willingness of Elizabeth to fight alongside her subjects is juxtaposed against Hitler’s eugenic brand of dictatorship and Reagan’s movie star nonchalance. Particularly effective was a visitation on the battlefield of Elizabeth I to a U.S. soldier in Vietnam. The integration of Hitler into the modern-day proceedings, however, seemed rather less smooth, and the themes at hand could have been further developed.
Polly Noonan, who plays the village idiot roles as well as the role of Violet, is the most distinct presence on-stage here. Her roles are given inordinate weight, but she plays each of her them with a wide-eyed sense of guile. She’s particularly poignant as the daughter of a Vietnam vet in the third act. Felix Solis as Pontius the Fish-gutter is similarly affecting, bringing a gravitas to the three characters in the play struggling to come to terms with their on-stage characterizations of the rubber-stamper of the crucifixion.
Ruhl is known first and foremost for her sense of whimsy; perhaps most disappointing about Passion Play is the failure of director Mark Wing-Davey to flesh out the magical realist moments in the text. Here we get fanciful on-stage fish, blood-red skies, and comical on-stage scenes from the Passion. But where the magical elements are masterfully integrated into others of Ruhl’s plays, here they seem tacked on, as if the playwright knows their purpose but the director has failed to let the audience in on the joke.
In the final moments of the play, Pontius gives us a poignant thought to chew on. “I think God is like a tollbooth worker,” he says. “Only he doesn’t give exact change. You hand him a dollar, he gives you a fish.” I felt the same way about the play. I’d given Ruhl my full attention, and she’d given me fish. I enjoyed the taste from time to time, but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. All in all, what I wished for was a bit more to chew on.