Can prose capture Sarah Ruhl? A poet by nature and a playwright by trade, she materializes among the lunch crowd as if out of nowhere, bent lovingly over a stroller, her face shaded by a floppy knit cap. The place: Café Fiorello, a popular restaurant on Broadway across from Lincoln Center in New York City, where Ruhl's play The Clean House concluded a much-acclaimed four-month run in late January. "This is Anna," Ruhl says, holding up a baby girl, gigantic for her 10 months, who gazes into the world with Buddhist poise. "She was ten pounds when she came out," Ruhl adds. "She weighed heavily on my frame."
The proud mother, 33, is a slip of a thing—strawberry blond, features impish but by no means dramatic. She speaks softly, calmly, frequently nodding in agreement, or humming appreciatively. She purrs at the suggestion that her dialogue—and sometimes even her stage directions—call to mind Emily Dickinson. "I love Emily Dickinson!" she says. "I love her short, strong, little words—and her dashes, in which awful meanings reside. Emily Dickinson! She makes me glad I speak English."
Beneath the mild facade, Ruhl, like Dickinson, is a wild original. "When I heard a reading of the first two scenes of The Clean House, I screamed," says fellow playwright Tina Howe, whose 14 plays have received two Pulitzer nominations. "At least, I felt like screaming. Her writing was so surreal and spare, so full of wonder and truth. A new talent had blasted onto the scene." Ruhl has come to regard Howe as something of a mentor, but Howe demurs. "Whenever Sarah would come to me for advice about practical theater matters, I'd say the wise and proper thing, knowing she didn't really need anyone's advice, since she's so utterly unique. It would be like advising a unicorn to acquire zebra stripes or start pulling a Budweiser carriage. Just as Sarah's voice is her own, so is her path. The woman is magic. And such intelligent magic at that!"
Born and raised in a Chicago suburb, with extended stays in the Iowa heartland from which her family hails, Ruhl disclosed her quirky side at a very early age. Her first play, in fourth grade, was a court drama about landmasses.
"I was thinking about isthmuses and peninsulas at the time," Ruhl says. "They were all anthropomorphized. It was about disputes over ownership. And then the sun came down and sorted everything out." Alas, the script is lost. And no, Ruhl can't remember any lines, or even the title. "Because it was never performed," she says. "If it had been, I would know every word. Playwrights can recite whole plays."
In many ways, Ruhl's more recent efforts are as unconventional as that grade-school debut. The Clean House (first performed in 2004) revolves around a Brazilian maid who loves to laugh but hates to clean, precipitating plot developments that escalate from strange to surreal. Late: A Cowboy Song (2003) makes as much emotional hay out of being late for dinner as it does of being "late" in the sense of pregnant, and the cowboy of the title is a woman. ("She's no cowgirl," says Ruhl.) When a character in Melancholy Play (2002) says of another, "She's—she's a nut," she doesn't mean crazy. She means an almond.
A favorite Ruhl theme is love at first sight. "It's shocking," she says. "The speed and quickness of the reactions are fascinating. And theatrical!" But even when she tackles darker topics—heartbreak, loss, disease and death—her touch is light. Ana, a terminal cancer patient in The Clean House, wants to die laughing. An angel of mercy, the Brazilian maid, Matilde, grants her wish. Ruhl's stage directions are very precise:
The lights change.
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.
Matilde kneels beside her.
"The funniest joke in the world" sets the bar rather high. How ingenious to finesse it with music! And what a cheat. Ruhl concurs. "It is a cheat. It's a cosmic joke—so we can't have access to it. Otherwise the moment would be prosaic."
The actress Blair Brown first read The Clean House as a judge for a playwriting contest. "It is so deceptively simple," Brown has said. She remembers laughing and crying, then laughing again, then really crying. "It's like water running over your hand, and then you find you are feeling some quite big, personal things."
Ruhl won the contest—and Brown went on to play the physician whose house Matilde won't clean. One award The Clean House didn't get was the 2005 Pulitzer. (The play was a finalist, but the prize went to Doubt by John Patrick Shanley.) Last year, however, Ruhl received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and the honors just keep coming.
Early last fall, the New York Times' Charles Isherwood reviewed Ruhl's Eurydice, a retelling of the Orpheus myth from the point of view of the bride who dies on her wedding day. "Devastatingly lovely—and just plain devastating," he wrote. The production, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, preceded the October opening of The Clean House at Lincoln Center—which was to be Ruhl's official New York City debut. Isherwood hesitated, he said, to sing the praises of Eurydice too loudly, "lest a backlash spoil her belated entree into the city's theater scene."
In June, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. introduced Ruhl's new comedy, Dead Man's Cell Phone, about a young woman who insinuates herself into a dead stranger's life by appropriating his cell phone. (The New York première is set for February). Another milestone came last September, when Chicago's Goodman Theatre presented a revision of her three-part Passion Play, A Cycle, which asks how it might warp a person's mind to play Jesus. Or Pontius Pilate? The Virgin Mary? And how much depends on the time and place? The play's settings are Elizabethan England, Hitler's Germany and Spearfish, South Dakota, during the Vietnam War years of the 1970s and the Ronald Reagan era of the '80s.
Playwrights lucky enough to seize the critics' attention have a way of getting snapped up by Hollywood. Some maintain a presence in live theater; others never look back. Is Ruhl hearing the siren song? "I lived in Los Angeles for four years," she says. (Her husband, a physician, was a resident at UCLA at the time.) "I couldn't avoid the industry entirely. But why should playwriting be an audition for the screen? The two art forms aren't the same."
Nevertheless, Plum Pictures, an independent film company in Manhattan, recently asked Ruhl to adapt The Clean House for the screen. She agreed, but realizes that turning a play into a movie may require smashing the vase, as it were, and starting over with the pieces. "That," she admits, "is a terrifying thought."