Note: Entire contents copyright 2004 by A. S. Waterman
Reviewed by A.S. Waterman
Written by Rinne Groff
Directed by Oskar Eustis, world premiere
Ruby/Elizabeth Hunter........Julie Jesneck
Martin Marcus........Fred Sullivan Jr.
Suzie........TyroneRussell Arden Koplin
Tad Rose........Mauro Hantman
With Anthony Ambrosino, Sara Betts, Keith Brayne, Elizabeth Gotauco, James Edward Kelley, Michael A. LoCicero, Erin M. Olson, David Rabinow and Jed Hancock-Brainerd
Produced in association with Actors Theatre of Louisville, Louisville, KY
It's 1927, and a scruffy teenage girl hides out in a barn in rural Indiana, where she scrounges electronic parts and constructs the first television set. If this were the truth, how many people would be allowed to know about it? (Indeed, how many people have ever heard the name of Philo Farnsworth, the 14-year-old farm boy who actually did build the first television, only to have RCA cheat him out of any royalties?) Within the fictional world of this acclaimed new play by Rinne Groff, will the true story of electronics genius Ruby Sunrise ever be told, even by those to whom it means the most? In this world premiere at Rhode Island's Trinity Repertory Company, the question holds us glued to our seats and begging to find out, meanwhile keeping us thoroughly entertained throughout.
THE RUBY SUNRISE is produced in association with the famed Actors Theatre of Louisville, where it was chosen for the Humana Festival of New American Plays, a prestigious annual event that has premiered several Pulitzer Prize-winning plays including DINNER WITH FRIENDS, CRIMES OF THE HEART and THE GIN GAME. Trinity's Oskar Eustis directed both the Louisville and Providence productions of RUBY SUNRISE, and describes the collaboration as effortless and very rewarding. The two theatre companies had previously traveled remarkably similar paths, both founded in 1964 and then quickly outgrowing their humble surroundings to blossom into nationally known phenomena. I was privileged to witness the early days of both, having grown up in Louisville and then moved to Providence, and I find this convergence fascinating. Moreover, I feel that they couldn't have chosen a better play with which to do it. Artistic Director Eustis recalls being taken with it immediately, announcing as soon as he finished reading the play that he would put it into the production schedule. "I have never made such an immediate and abrupt decision about an unproduced play, before or since," Eustis says in the playbill.
It's easy to see why he was so enthralled. THE RUBY SUNRISE is a roller-coaster ride of surprises. A three-part production performed in two acts (an initial paradox typical of the play's twists and turns), the show runs the gamut, from powerful drama to side-splitting humor to compelling intrigue and then back again. It takes us from idealistic wonder to harsh reality to painful compromise, and perhaps back again. Above all, it revels in constantly throwing us off guard. From the compelling story of young Ruby in Part 1, we're suddenly thrust into the world of 1950s New York and the Golden Age of Television, an abrupt "Andrew Wyeth meets Neil Simon" that couldn't have been more jarring. Yet there are reasons for the difficult transition that later become clear -- at least until they're reversed and we're thrown another curve. There are lots of surprises. There are also lots of laughs, although these are painful at times. Looking back at the ludicrous conventions of 1950s TV, we wonder what we could have been thinking at the time. Playwright Groff also makes us wonder what we're thinking now, as young Ruby explains how television will change the world. For example, she is sure that it will put an end to war. After all, who could bear to see war in their living room?
The well-chosen cast does a fine job, with several playing dual roles. Especially noteworthy is Julie Jesneck, who plays young Ruby in 1927 and also Elizabeth Hunt in 1952, the actress who is fired from her role as Ruby after winding up on the McCarthy blacklist. This is Jesneck's first production with Trinity, although she has performed with Actors Theatre of Louisville. Trinity's Jessica Wortham also gives an excellent portrayal of the discreetly brilliant "script girl" Lulu whose mission in 1952 is to tell Ruby's story ... sort of. Anne Scurria, a veteran actress who has performed in more than 90 Trinity productions, is compelling as Ruby's alcoholic aunt Lois in Part 1, but lapses into what some have called "vintage Scurria" as spoiled actress Ethel Reed in Part 2. As Ethel, her portrayal seems to recall too many of Scurria's previous roles (although with so many previous roles, this may be difficult to avoid). Mauro Hantman is appropriately irritating and hang-dog as Tad Rose, the nebbish writer who reluctantly steals Lulu's story, and Fred Sullivan, Jr. is agreeably slimy as stereotypical producer Martin Marcus. Stephen Thorne is fine in both his roles, as Ruby's country-bumpkin suitor Henry and the sleazy actor hired to play him. In the role of bimbo/starlet Suzie Tyrone, who is cast as Ruby after Hunt is dumped, actress Russell Arden Koplin is forced into a stereotyped portrayal of a very stereotyped character, but this is forgivable, considering the story line. Her flashy 1950s get-up is a hoot, as is her Marilyn Monroe-style portrayal of Ruby. The final scene, with the finished TV show seen simultaneously on stage and on a black-and-white screen, had the audience rolling in the aisles.
At last night's press opening, the background music was a little loud at times, as were some members of the audience. Seating arrangements were also a bit awkward, as ushers showed guests to seats and then directed them to walk all the way around to the other side in order to sit in them. Yet somehow this production thrives in having just a few rough spots around the edges.
Indeed, it is the unsmoothed edges and the unanswered questions that fascinate us. Just what is the ruby sunrise, and what is this play really about? It's about persistence, and especially persistence of vision, the characters tell us. And it's how times have changed -- who, indeed, could bear to see war right in their living room? Above all, it's the legacy of a fictional, dirty-faced country girl who represents the hopes, dreams and obsessions of all of us, as well as the nature of genius and its not-so-pretty fate in this self-serving world. This is our success and failure, betrayal and triumph.
The deck was stacked against young Ruby, just as it was against young Philo Farnsworth. Ironically, it was also stacked against playwright Rinne Groff. In an interview with the Providence Journal's Bryan Rourke, she explains that regional theaters have just one or two slots per year for new plays, and there are hundreds of new plays vying for them. Yet Groff's story is one of success, when Trinity's Craig Watson surprised her with a supportive response to her script, which eventually placed it into the hands of Oskar Eustis. And we're ever so glad.
THE RUBY SUNRISE is troubling, hilarious, humble and grand. It will make you question everything you thought was all squared away, making you groan, laugh, cry and gape in amazement. See this outstanding new show. It may not turn out the way you had hoped or expected, but it is a triumph and a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of opportunities to experience something glorious. Don't let it pass you by.
THE RUBY SUNRISE runs through June 20. Tickets are $15 to $48.