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Piven Produces The Thought-Provoking Sarah Ruhl Play "Late: A Cowboy Song"


The increasingly popular and important playwright Sarah Ruhl, a Chicago native and finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for "In The Next Room: or the Vibrator Play," traces her theatrical origins, in part at least, to the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, or, more exactly, to its Young People's Company. Also in that Company were the future director Jessica Thebus (now an Artistic Associate at Steppenwolf Theatre Company) and the actor Polly Noonan, who has now appeared in notable productions of six Ruhl plays in the last ten years (among then "Passion Play," "Dead Man's Cell Phone," "Eurydice" and "Orlando"). 

These very busy theater artists have joined forces again, to present the Chicago premiere of an early script by Ruhl, "Late: A Cowboy Song," in "the very rooms in which we learned to speak," as Thebus puts it. The play opened on Monday night, July 26, 2010 in the Piven Theatre Workshop space in the Noyes Cultural Center, just off the CTA Purple Line train in Evanston, and will run every weekend until August 29th. 

Described as "the story of one woman's education and her search to find true love after she meets a female cowboy just outside of Pittsburgh," the script is intriguing and richly evocative of the lost working class souls of modern urban America. This particular production of it is both gritty and lyrical, and it makes great use of an unusual performance space. The bifurcated scene design is by John Dalton, and the dreamy lighting design is by JR Lederle. 

The production also showcases the watchability of its cast of three: Polly Noonan as the confused new wife and mother, Mary, Lawrence Grimm as her lifelong partner Crick (obsessed with paintings and by the film "It's A Wonderful Life"), and Kelli Simpkins as the enigmatic yet fully openhearted female cowboy named Red. Did I mention that Simpkins plays the guitar and sings what must be a dozen folk/country-western "cowboy songs," by Jeff Award-winning composer Amy Warren? Yeah, she does. Beautifully. 

Touching upon topics ranging from unemployment to physical and emotional gender identity, domestic violence, secrecy, true love, household chores, the freedom and power of horses, celebrations of holidays and the connection to real feelings that funny coincidences evoke (well, I could go on), it is noteworthy that words like "lesbian, "bisexual," "hermaphrodite," "sex roles" and such are never spoken. It is likely that these characters wouldn't understand them, even if they were. But in the absence of such labels, Ruhl's married couple, their unseen child and the female cowboy who only Mary sees become both specific and universal. 

Mary and Crick say they love each other, and have since the second grade. And yet, they can't settle on the name of their own baby. What sort of love is that? Is this play even real? Mary keeps going out in the cold without an overcoat, and her mother never visits. In one extraordinary sequence, time flies by in a "kitchen sink" city apartment at dizzying speed, and in another, time sees to stop as two actors stand atop old wooden chairs in a Victorian building in Evanston, yet are propelled through the air out in the country by the power of our collective imaginations and some fantastic projections designed by Stephan Mazurek. Just exactly what is going on here? Oh, right. Theater. It's transporting. It's pretty powerful stuff. 

On the down side, it's too bad that the closest we get to Red is during the curtain call, but we are glad when Mary is close to her. And it's uncomfortable when a married person apparently has feelings for someone outside of the marriage, but then again, it's hardly unusual, is it? And this Mary, somewhat childlike and vulnerable and naïve, may not even know what's happening to her, but to her credit, she lets it happen. Crick (in Grimm's committed and troubling incarnation of him) could be an underdeveloped cipher, but he comes across instead as a man that a woman like Mary could never understand. And Red? Well, I hope she is real. And I hope that she rides up to your house in the city some day and represents the chance for honesty and comfort and acceptance. Wouldn't that be wonderful? 

I enjoyed "Late," and I think that a lot of people will too, if they are open to examining the meaning of adult relationships as they move beyond the infatuation stage. Sometimes it isn't pretty. But sometimes it is. These actors know a lot about emotional truth, about connection, with each other and with an audience. I'm glad I went. You just never know who your knight is, do you? Or what their shining armor looks like. I think I have a better idea now, thanks to Ruhl, Thebus, Piven and company. 

"Late: A Cowboy Story" by Sarah Ruhl runs Thursdays through Sundays at Piven Theatre Workshop, 927 Noyes Street, Evanston, Illinois, through August 29, 2010. For tickets or for more information, call 847-866-8049 or visit

Photos: Lawrence Grimm and Polly Noonan; Kelli Simpkins and Polly Noonan  

Photo Credit: Chris Tzoubris

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From This Author Paul W. Thompson

Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as (read more...)