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Pucker power: Mark Montgomery and Jenny Bacon star in Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss at the Goodman Theatre.
Decades in dark theatres observing onstage kisses inspired Sarah Ruhl to write her newest play, now in a world premiere at the Goodman Theatre. As she watched all those lips meeting again and again, the much-in-demand playwright kept wondering: How much was work and how much was pleasure?
Stage Kiss follows a rekindled romance between two former lovers cast in a bad play. Throw in the ugliness of adultery, the cuckolded husband who maintains his sweetness despite that betrayal, and the acid sarcasm of their adolescent daughter, and you have Ruhl’s exploration of what love really is and isn’t—and of what reality is and isn’t.
“How do we speak the truth or lie onstage and in life?” asks Ruhl, stealing an hour in a lunchroom at Goodman before auditions for Stage Kiss. “What is the language of intimacy, and when is it a lie and when is it not? And what is this weird thing actors do when they kiss onstage?”
Stage Kiss, starring Jenny Bacon and Mark Montgomery, picks up where Ruhl’s much-heralded Passion Play, which kicked off Goodman’s 2007–08 season, left off. Passion Play examined how the actors in the annual Easter rite came to inhabit the characters they played. “I was fascinated by questions of identity and how does performing an identity affect your own identity,” Ruhl said when that play opened. “If you’re playing the Virgin Mary for 20 years but you have great lust in your heart, what would that do to you?” The resulting work covered more than four centuries over three hours, taking audiences from Elizabethan England to Nazi Germany to Reagan-era South Dakota. “Stage Kiss has a direct through-line from Passion Play in terms of preoccupations with what is reality,” explains Ruhl. “I’ve always been interested in this question of what’s inside and what’s outside onstage. What’s the nature of pretending, and what’s the game that the actors are playing?”
Actors’ responses during readings of this new play have amused Ruhl. “They tell me little anecdotes about times when they had to kiss someone onstage and then fell in love for the entire run,” she says, with a characteristic gentle smile. “And then the run ends and they think, Oh God, what was that?”
“I love small, humble moments, and I also love great epic things,” says Ruhl. “The in-between is what bores me.”
Ruhl’s work has always flirted with that line between reality and fantasy. The Clean House—a romantic tragedy about a cleaning woman who would rather be a comedian and the complex family in which she finds herself—was her first big hit at Goodman in 2006. In 2008, Dead Man’s Cell Phone enjoyed a long run at Steppenwolf. This meditation on death and love features a woman who retrieves a dead man’s cell phone and embarks on an odyssey that alters his past by reinventing him as a kind person.
“I’m not that interested in reality per se,” Ruhl says. “We’re glutted with things claiming to be reality on TV, and it’s disgusting. First it was naive; then it was sophisticated; now it’s decadent, and it’s got to go soon. I’m hoping we’ll get a little tired of it.”
In today’s theatre world, Ruhl is golden. Productions of her plays regularly open on both coasts, in many states in between, and around the world. This year alone, her plays have been performed on Chicago-area stages north to south. Late: A Cowboy Song had its Chicago premiere last summer at the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston. Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando opened in March at Court Theatre in Hyde Park. This fall’s hot ticket will be the Chicago premiere of her In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play at Victory Gardens Theater.
The glut of local productions is “crazy and totally by accident,” says Ruhl, a Wilmette native who now makes her home in New York City. “I feel a little embarrassed that I have so much in Chicago this year.” Why? “I just don’t want people to get entirely sick of me,” she says.
Given the range of Ruhl’s work, that’s unlikely. Like Pablo Picasso, she keeps reinventing herself and, most critics say, succeeding. Her many prizes attest to that: Pulitzer nominations, a MacArthur Fellowship, and numerous industry awards. Critics praise her often-playful examinations of complex themes like love and war, the interior and exterior nature of our lives, and the line between reality and fantasy. Most of her plays are filled with joy, even if it can be found only in small moments.
“I’m interested in the pleasure of the tale,” says Ruhl. “After World War II, the American drama became so truncated. [The story] had to be one discrete arc, and it had to be only one idea. I don’t think novelists think that way. I don’t think poets think that way. I don’t think anyone else thinks that way. I don’t want to be confined by this notion that [a play] has to have one premise, one protagonist, one idea leading up to a climax and then slowly tapering off until you’re done, and then the audience goes away with a little lesson. If you’re following a story in a more expansive way—the way you would tell a story to a child or embellish and improvise—there are some pleasures along the way that change the way you might tell it.”
So what drives Ruhl? Mainly it’s her desire to keep writing and the pleasure of that pursuit. Most mornings, she heads out of her Manhattan home—which she shares with her child-psychiatrist husband, a four-year-old daughter, and one-year-old twins—to the offices of a New York artists’ collective. Ruhl loves the collective’s cell-phone-and-conversation-free zone and often works at one of 40 writers’ desks from midmorning through early afternoon, stopping only for a quick, light lunch. Inspiration often comes to her by surprise. “Somehow an image floated into my head of a dead guy in a café whose phone was ringing and ringing,” she says. From that she conceived Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Sometimes the muse comes ordered up on commission. Joyce Piven, Ruhl’s longtime teacher and mentor, early on asked her to adapt Woolf’s Orlando. “I said, ‘Oh, all right, I’ll do that. I love that novel. It’s one of my favorites,’” recalls Ruhl. “They gave me a few hundred bucks, and I went off and wrote the thing.” That first stab at playwriting continues to be produced.
What Piven finds impressive are the leaps Ruhl makes with each play—for example, Passion Play. “Where in the heck did that come from?” asks Piven, who directed Eurydice (Ruhl’s retelling of a classic Greek myth) and Ruhl’s adaptations of Orlando and Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters at her theatre. “What an ingenious idea of writing in a different way about how the history of the Passion play reveals the history of wars.” The next leap came with In the Next Room—in which Ruhl pokes fun at the common Victorian-era medical practice of treating women’s “hysteria” with sexually soothing machines. Piven calls it “a leap into a marvelously first-rate Broadway play. How do you make a leap like that? It’s phenomenal to me.”
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Photography: (Stage Kiss) Brian Kuhlmann; Assistants: Colin Beckett, Sean Costin; Styling: Joslyn Beta Lawrence; Hair and Makeup: Lia Rivette; Talent: Jenny Bacon, Mark Montgomery; (Ruhl) © Tina Tyrell/Corbis Outline