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Rewriting the Rules, HER WAY

by Michael Vinson

A meeting of the New Trier High School alumni association would include some of the most accomplished and notable Americans in public life. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ‘50, actress Ann-Margret ‘59, and Congressman Rahm Emmanuel ’83 would be among the guests, along with Steppenwolf ensemble member Jim True-Frost ‘77. And now, the Winnetka, Illinois school has yet another graduate to celebrate: playwright Sarah Ruhl ‘94. Within the last few years, Sarah Ruhl has emerged as a dynamic force in American theater, receiving numerous honors. Her play, The Clean House, won the 2004 Susan Smith Blackburn Award, given to outstanding female playwrights, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. In 2006, she was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (nicknamed the “genius grant”), a $500,000 award given to individuals who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.” That same year she made her New York debut at Lincoln Center with The Clean House. Shortly thereafter, a Yale Repertory Theatre production of her play Eurydice was hailed by critics, including Charles Isherwood of The New York Times who called the work “devastatingly lovely—and just plain devasting.” Ruhl’s work—celebrated for its distinctive aura of magic and whimsy, its transformation of space, time, and atmosphere—is becoming a fixture in theaters throughout the nation and, increasingly, around the world. Theater companies in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia have expressed interest in her work. As an undergraduate English major at Brown University, Ruhl asked Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel to advise her senior thesis. Vogel declined to advise the thesis as planned, but did offer to advise Ruhl were she to write a play instead. Feeling somewhat relieved (she didn’t really want to write that 100-page paper about 19th century actresses), Ruhl accepted Vogel’s offer and set to work on what would become Passion Play, a three play cycle about religion, political power and society that recently received a production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Without Vogel’s guidance, Ruhl says, she would not be writing at all. Playwriting came naturally to Sarah Ruhl. After spending two years teaching arts education in Chicago, she subsequently enrolled in the MFA program at Brown, continuing her studies with Vogel, the Ruhl styled “Yoda of American Theater.” Ruhl found the work pleasurable, so much so she thought it rather “decadent.” Her exacting mastery of the English language lends her work a haunting beauty. This is especially true of her famously terse stage directions, which have been called “impossible” by Howard Shalwitz, the Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. He says that Ruhl’s writing is “an invitation to a production. She really believes in letting other people take it and run with it.” A character in The Clean House, Ana, has terminal cancer and wants to die laughing. Ruhl’s stage directions read: The lights change. Music. Matilde whispers a joke in Ana’s ear. We don’t hear it. We hear sublime music instead. A subtitle projects: The Funniest Joke in the World. Ana laughs and laughs. Ana collapses. Matilde kneels beside her. Matilde wails. Playwright Tina Howe commented that after hearing a reading of the first two scenes of The Clean House, she felt like screaming, noting that Ruhl’s writing was “so surreal and spare, so full of wonder, and truth. The woman is magic. And such intelligent magic at that!” Sarah Ruhl once told the Washington Post, “[I’m a playwright because] many days I think it’s important for the cultural health of the world we’re living in. Other days I think, ‘This is a really useless activity; the world is falling apart—better to be a nurse.’ But I really would be a bad nurse.” And for that, theater goers everywhere can be thankful.