“The Oldest Boy” at the Jungle Theater

Sarah Ruhl’s story of a young boy’s destiny captures textures of eternity with uncommon grace


            I have heard the delicate process of meditation described as akin to balancing a ball bearing on the end of a ruler, and as an on-again, off-again practitioner I’ll vouch for the comparison. So it seems apt when Christina Baldwin’s character opens The Oldest Boy at the Jungle Theater by having her metaphorical metal ball drop to the floor as her concentration wavers—it’s hard to grasp the universal, though this show does a fine and evocative job of summoning its textures.

            The plot is unadorned and straightforward. A Tibetan father (Randy Reyes) and his Cincinnatian wife (Baldwin) are happily married with a three-year-old son when a pair of monks show up at their door with a pretty startling proposition: A dream vision has revealed to them that their boy is the reincarnation of a lama who died at the same time as their son was born. When they show the son some of the late monk’s possessions, he brightens with recognition.

            Playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose work often embraces flights of metaphor, plays this one quite straight, as does director Sarah Rasmussen. The plot itself supplies sufficient material to stoke ethical debate, as the parents battle with the proposition of their firstborn moving to a monastery in India to literally sit on a throne. One simple, elegant concession to metaphor is the son being portrayed as a life-sized puppet, operated by Masanari Kawahara as the embodiment of a shell being operated by an eternal reincarnated spirit—Kawahara’s performance is so loving and delicate that when he finally sheds the puppet and becomes the lama the effect is breathtaking.

            There’s a sense of inevitability to what follows, especially in a relatively static second act, but here it feels more like choice than dramatic deficiency. The notion of the child going to live in India is consistently presented as volitional rather than any sort of spiritual kidnapping, and the monks behave with an air of enthusiastic humility that nicely reflects the metaphysical pragmatism of the Buddhist faith.

            The Oldest Boy is an uncommon work, one that captures the textures that we assign to our various perceptions of the eternal. It delivers an emotional impact of surprising power. In lieu of careening toward a conclusion of conventional stakes, what eventually emerges is as crystalline and still as a moment suspended in meditation. The cycle of reincarnated rebirth holds weight as metaphor for an ageless eternity present in each individual. The way in which we are all teachers and students unfolds with fragile light, and the dance of attachment and release—between us and those we love, between our lived lives and our mortality—stands stark and lands with the power of an undeniable, whispered truth.

The Oldest Boy plays at the Jungle Theater through December 18. Tickets here.

Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.