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Cozy with almost a Caribbean vibe in a soft coral turtleneck sweater on a cold December day, Ruhl sits unassumingly at the head of a table surrounded by 13 people who are workshopping Stage Kiss. Seated nearby is her longtime friend and colleague, Jessica Thebus, who will direct this show. As the actors read her words, Ruhl’s classic Renaissance features and gentle smile have all the calm and sweetness of the Mona Lisa. Sometimes she sits forward, sometimes back. Sometimes she presses her fingers to her lips as she listens to people read through her play in the large, plain rehearsal room at the back of the Goodman. This low-key yet present demeanor is typical for Ruhl, who, like her work, is soft spoken but strong; serious but playful; gentle but sardonic; sentimental but searing.
Thebus and Ruhl are mostly listening today, but the evidence of their longtime collaboration seems clear even in the silences they share. That collaboration dates back to the days when Ruhl, then an undergraduate at Brown, took summer classes taught by Thebus at the Piven Theatre Workshop. Their relationship features “a shared vocabulary and shared aesthetic,” says Ruhl. “I’ve been lucky to collaborate with people who I love, and to insist on working with people that I love over and over again, so that’s really fruitful.”
When asked about Ruhl’s low-key style, Thebus responds, “She’s quiet in terms of volume, but she’s very loud in terms of opinions and wit. She’s very straightforward. She does not equivocate. That’s in the plays. That’s very bracing to be around.”
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Theatre has been a part of Sarah Ruhl’s life since she was a little girl. Her actor mother, Kathleen Ruhl—whose dramatic chops date back to the early days of Court Theatre and include more recent stints at Timeline Theatre—started bringing Sarah and her older sister, Kate, to shows when they were young. The drama extended to the back seat of the family car. “What we would do was play a little game in which I would name one of the characters in the play I was in or directing, and Kate and Sarah would pop up in the back seat and recite lines of the character,” recalls Kathy Ruhl.
Ruhl—whose actor mother exposed her to theatre as a child—starring in a third-grade play at Central Elementary School in Wilmette. She was an “imaginative and kind of serious” girl, recalls Joyce Piven, with “reticence, depth.”
Once, when Sarah was five or six, her mother asked for help with a monologue she was rehearsing. Sarah demanded her yellow pad. “She couldn’t even write, but her comments were very smart,” says Kathy. “Before she could write, she would dictate wonderful, imaginative stories, and I would type them. The kids at school always looked forward to her stories.”
When Sarah was around eight, her mother was directing Enter Laughing, by Joseph Stein, at Highcrest Middle School in Wilmette for North Shore Theater. “Sarah came to a lot of rehearsals, and the actors would ask for her notes,” Kathy Ruhl says. Those years seem to have been unusual for their joyful calm. Kathy doesn’t recall having to discipline her daughters or dealing with the typical struggles of childhood and adolescence. “I just remember that we took them places and assumed they’d enjoy going along,” she says.
The early theatrical outings and involvements were life-altering for Sarah, whose essay about watching her mom onstage is included in an anthology called The Play That Changed My Life. “An early memory was watching her be the nurse in Romeo and Juliet and just feeling so devastated when she was devastated,” Ruhl recalls.
Ruhl first showed up on Chicago-area stages at Piven, but long before that, her mother had brought her there to help Kathy combat her own stage fright. Joyce Piven remembers Sarah as “imaginative and kind of serious” with “reticence, depth.” She was surprised when Ruhl, as a teenager, didn’t remain a member of the Piven Theatre’s Young People’s Company, since most youngsters she encountered wanted to act. Instead, she says, Ruhl took classes on scene study, improvisation, and theatre games, rounding out and perfecting her sense of the whole theatrical process. When Ruhl was a high-school senior, she began working as an assistant teacher at Piven. By the time she headed for college, she was adapting short stories by Chekhov for the theatre. “I never thought of her as an aspiring writer. She was just a writer,” Piven says. “She has to write like most people have to breathe.”
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Kathy Ruhl continues to be delighted by her daughter’s unique perspective. “Sarah always sees things in a little different way than everybody else does,” she says, such as “reading The Technology of Orgasm and seeing a play”—the upcoming In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play. “I read it, too, and I thought, This is really interesting stuff, but I don’t see a play in it. She is able to see things happen and see a way in which it is comical or ironic or both.”
When Thebus speaks of Ruhl’s oeuvre, she calls the scale of her plays “incredibly varied. There’s a huge canvas, like Passion Play, and there’s this intimacy in Late or Melancholy Play, which is just really raw.”
“I love small, humble moments, and I also love great epic things,” says Ruhl. “The in-between is what bores me.”
Just as characteristic of Ruhl as her range, says Thebus, is her candor. “Sarah writes incredibly truthfully about the way it actually feels to be alive,” she explains. “She writes about grief, about falling in love, about hope and compassion and jealousy. Her plays can seem dreamlike, and certainly they are magical—and all that with this great compassionate humor, naughtiness, irreverence, and huge theatricality, an enormous appetite for theatrical delights. It’s the pairing of those two things—the magical and the mundane—that makes her such an incredibly strong voice.”
Piven expects Ruhl’s profile to keep growing in the theatre world: “She’ll be even more important and one of our great writers of both centuries. She’s deceptively simple and yet enormously profound.”
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Breaking for some soup and conversation amid a busy schedule of auditions, rehearsals, and rewrites, Ruhl considers “the ravages of time with the theatre” and all its travel and rehearsal demands. “It’s really hard on family life, so there are moments where I think I should write a book of essays. I should write a children’s novel or book—” She interrupts herself to say, “I won’t write a novel. I am not interested in writing a novel.” Then she continues, “I should write a thin collection of poems, so there are those moments. But then I just write another play.” The small room fills with her gentle but decisive laugh.
Photograph: From Pioneer Press/courtesy of Kathleen Ruhl