Biblical reinterpretations, family themes and death all figure high on my list of things I don’t like. All also figure prominently into RUTH, currently in production at N.C. Stage. And though I did my best to show up with an open mind, I was ready to hate the play, ready to use words like “pretentious” and “indulgent.”
While I’m confessing here, I’ll go ahead and admit that I hate it when writers interject too much of their own voices (like I’m doing) and that, because RUTH is the work of two of the Xpress’ Sightlines contributors (it’s written by John Crutchfield and directed by Steven Samuels) I felt an additional pressure to give them their come-uppance. I don’t actually know Crutchfield or Samuels — I’ve met each one time — but, still. People are bound to assume we’re BFFs (and there’s been some heated conflict-of-interest discussion on our theatre page).
All of that said, RUTH started to work its peculiar magic on me from the moment I laid eyes on the set: a chaotic jumble of strewn papers and stacked ephemera. Furniture, a vacuum, the kind of rubble that accumulates in the corner of a garage, the dusty clutter of life. Which is kind of what RUTH is about — life’s clutter — and also what’s left when the hum and clatter of daily grind is pared away. In this case, the paring away is by death.
In the Bible, Ruth is a young woman who loses her husband. She decides that, instead of returning to her own family, she’ll follow and care for her widowed mother-in-law. Crutchfield sets his modern adaption in “a small town in Western North Carolina,” which leads to certain storylines and an especially geographically-specific accent, as performed by C.J. Breland in the role of Nancy, Ruth’s mother-in-law. But, as Nancy says at one point (and I’m paraphrasing), people live pretty much the same way all over.
Crutchfield fuses the modern retelling of Ruth with selections from the biblical text, as well as his own verse, which reflects both biblical verse and secular poetry. The strong nature-as-metaphor-for-the-human-body style of Walt Whitman is often called to mind (“My love stretched out like water from a disappearing source”); as is Greek mythology (“I ate pomegranate seeds in the house of long shadows”). I could wax philosophical about Crutchfield’s use of verse within the structure of the play, but that’s only a small part of what the production entails.
The story of Ruth is of loss, and of continuing. It’s about death, but also what death leaves behind. In the Bible, Ruth gleans from the fields of Boaz, who is a relative of Ruth’s mother-in-law, and by Levirate law, Boaz is obliged to marry the widow Ruth. There aren’t modern laws that would transfer a widow into the care of her dead husband’s family, but in RUTH that legal tie is replaced by an emotional one. Ruth finds a kindred spirit in lonely David (played with heartbreaking tenderness by Peter Brezny) who knew Ruth’s husband in school, and who has suffered the loss of his own brother.
While the sorrow of Ruth is beautifully conveyed by Kathryn Temple — her set jaw and suitcase of dirt just a hint of her performance — the weighty, pressing sadness begins to feel overbearing in the play until, through a series of monologues and choruses (performed in marks, in sync, with eerie but spellbinding choreography by Julie Becton Gillum), death is transformed from specificity to metaphor. A metaphor for aging, for leaving behind the plans and dreams of youth, and accepting what is and what still can be, and moving into that new phase of life. More than metaphor, RUTH is a meditation — sometimes on what is lost, sometimes on what’s revealed. Sometimes on love, and the impermanence of love, and on the fathomlessness of love.
There’s an especially moving (and, for me, uncomfortably intimate) love scene. There’s no kissing or nudity (there is nudity in another scene that I won’t spoil. The nudity is only suggested and, in its context, breathtakingly poignant); there is poetry and modern dance. But, sewn into this work that requires touchy-feely descriptives, there’s also (thankfully!) a remarkable amount of humor. Both Erik Moellering as Boy — an immature, ball cap-wearing (and sometimes jive-talking) youth — and Kelly Hinman as Paul — Ruth’s stressed-out divorcee employer — bring a necessary element of levity to the production.
And there’s Crutchfield’s musical accompaniment throughout, on non-traditional drum kit, thumb piano and bowed banjo. Which is weird, and I hope he never releases an album of those sounds, but it works on stage. And there’s the chandelier — a bicycle wheel strung with fairy lights. And lines like “My hair is full of songless birds.” And the floor strewn with papers (I kept thinking of the film Unstrung Heroes in which a boy is sent to live with his pack-rat uncles in their cluttered New York apartment, and how the trash represents uniqueness). And how “light” — the word, the quality and the actual electrical ingenuity — takes on so many meanings, and what it means at the end, in the play’s final sumptuous moment.
So, yes, this is positive review of a play written by an Xpress theatre reviewer. So we’re all perfectly clear. Go ahead and hate, if you must; no one is more surprised than me. But don’t miss the show — it only runs through July 10.
Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. at N.C. Stage Company. $12.