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
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