In chapter one of his majestic In Exile from the Land of Snows, John F. Avedon must prove that a two-and-a-half-year-old boy, a thousand miles east of Lhasa, Tibet, is the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. Having succeeded, Avedon moves on to chapter two.
The boy, Lhamo Dhondrub, passed every physical test (the requisite eight body marks, tiger-streaks on his legs, conch-shell print on his hand, large ears), and every spiritual one; he even spoke the dialect of Central Tibet, though no one in his village had ever done so. Monks took him to study at Lhasa, where he became Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.
In Tibetan Buddhism, High Lamas, called Tulkus, also reincarnate. Their parents proudly send them to a monastery. Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy is about an exception. It asks: “Did Mary and Joseph pray for their son to be ordinary?”
The character called Mother considers herself “kind of a Buddhist.” Her husband, who runs a restaurant, is an exiled Tibetan (she melted when they met: “I want to wash dishes with you”). Two monks arrive in saffron and crimson robes. After a series of tests, they claim that Mother and Father’s almost-three-year-old son, Tenzin, is a reincarnated lama. He must study in India. Father understands and accepts.
Even when told to “think bigger than a mother,” she refuses. Mother wants her son to be special for her — for the “cruel animal fact of motherhood” — not a “golden child” for the world.
She’s been using “attachment parenting” with the boy.
She will not go gently into “non-attachment.”
Sarah Ruhl has made herself a tough act to follow. Compared to the brilliant invention of, say, In the Next Room (the Vibrator Play) or The Clean House, Oldest Boy is much more straightforward and almost one-note predictable. The question isn’t will Tenzin go to India, it’s how Mother will resolve it — or not.
For the San Diego Rep, Amanda Sitton gives the question genuine immediacy. Mother’s always been an in-betweener. The lapsed Catholic, lapsed deconstructionist, and now part-time Buddhist (while munching potato chips) must make an unthinkable decision. At times Sitton moves with lyric grace; at others, she’s a klutz. Throughout she brings urgency to the script’s semi-formal debate between the individual and society, East and West (in which the West takes some well-aimed salvos).
The cast, directed by Sam Woodhouse (now his 40th year of guiding the Rep), is solid. As lively as any is the Bunraku-style puppet playing Tenzin. Three people in blacks manipulate him, and disappear when he speaks. Tsering Dorjee Bawa, the major puppeteer who plays several roles, gives the production the sharp feel of authenticity.
As does the Rep’s “surround”: Sean Fanning’s colorful set, Jennifer Setlow’s elastic lighting, and Jennifer Brawn Gitting’s telling costumes. Michael Roth’s original music and soundscape, with onstage drums and gongs, offstage chants and tinkling finger-bells, evokes West and East and provides vital accompaniment for the ritual dances and ceremonies.