Review: THE OLDEST BOY at Main Street Theater

A Play in Three Ceremonies running through April 23rd

By: Apr. 11, 2023
Review: THE OLDEST BOY at Main Street Theater
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Some plays you can't quite shake days after seeing them, and this is one of them. It is a meditation on love, faith, and accepting the impossible. THE OLDEST BOY by Sarah Ruhl first debuted in 2014 at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. This outstanding production at Main Street Theater is a regional premiere. The play is subtitled "A Play in Three Ceremonies", because in it we see approximations of a trio of Tibetan Buddhist practices. Careful contemplation reveals the number three shows up throughout the show in every scene, and you will notice often there are three participants in any given scene or effect. It is a piece of theater that begs to be analyzed and contemplated.

The show is about a mother and father who are visited by a lama and a monk who say their son is a reincarnation of a high lama and great teacher. They ask to take the boy away to a monastery in India to be trained in spiritual practices. The mother is an American woman who is converting to Buddhism, and the father is the son of Tibetan refugee parents and is quite devout. The mother and father struggle with what to do, and the play presents their journey through many stages of loss and faith.

Molly Wetzel plays the mother with a wonderfully strong sense of turmoil combating maternal instinct with what could well be right for the child. She is presented as a mother who is quite attached to her son, and practicing a style of parenting that encourages this. She has a westerner's view, and becomes the audience's gateway into the religion and its practices. She has to carry the drama in the script, and she does so with an innate grace and straight-forward approach. Fong Chau plays the father who is quietly strong and certain as a counterpoint to his wife. Together they make a lovely couple that you believe in for many reasons. They have such natural chemistry, and both actors pull off the most difficult aspects of these characters. Molly handles the histrionics without ever being shrill, while Fong placates and soothes while never feeling condescending or demeaning. The Tibetan lama and monk are played by Lloyd Wayne Taylor and Nova Wang. Lloyd masterfully moves in and out of being likable and peacefully demanding, a rare path to play. Nova is quietly passionate, and has a sense of peace as well. The two actors disappear skillfully into their roles.

The actual "boy" is portrayed by a beautifully made puppet handled mainly by Pin Lim along with help from Asio X. Boentaran. It is a conceit that emphasizes the theme of the show. A real child would be too hard for the audience emotionally, and we are to believe he is the reincarnation of an older man. So having "the boy" attached literally to an elder makes all the sense in the world. Pin speaks for the child, and the effect creates the world where this could be possible. It adds a true sense of the theatrical which the play embraces.

Another way THE OLDEST BOY embraces metaphor in spectacle is within the ceremonies themselves which are beautifully choreographed using long voluminous sheets and many candles. It feels so reverent and calming whenever these interludes emerge. The action pauses to create something special and interesting to view. Tied in with this is the set design from Afsaneh Anayani (who also designed the puppet). A modern apartment transforms into a holy Buddhist temple space between acts, and it is breathtaking. David Gipson's lighting married with Yezminne Zepeda's sound design reinforces everything in their immaculate design. Victoria Nicolette Gist's costumes are also compelling, and offer sly nods here and there to the text.

This is easily one of Main Street Theater's strongest offerings this year, and it is a show that is well-thought through and exquisitely paced. Sophia Watt achieves near nirvana balancing acting with design and execution in her direction. THE OLDEST BOY is about as perfect as you can manage to get in live theater, and it offers a lot to consider. There is something about these characters that get inside you, and force you to think about the nature of faith and love. In any larger space, this kind of piece could never weave its magic. Main Street Theater seems designed specifically for this kind of meditation, and THE OLDEST BOY is representative of the company at its utmost best.

THE OLDEST BOY runs at Main Street Theater's Rice Village location through April 23rd. Tickets can be reserved through Main Street's website or by calling their box office at 713-524-6706.


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