'The Oldest Boy': Buddhist traditions and lessons on love and loss touch on the holiday spirit

'The Oldest Boy'

'The Oldest Boy' Dan Norman

The Oldest Boy, which just opened at the Jungle Theater, is playing into the holiday season. At one point, the play's central character wonders whether Mary and Joseph ever wished that their son was just an ordinary boy, so they could keep him to themselves instead of having to sacrifice him for the good of the world. Of course, no parents can ever keep a child entirely to themselves, a fact that inspires the bittersweet emotion pervading Sarah Ruhl's 2014 piece.

The Oldest Boy

Jungle Theater

As The Oldest Boy opens, an American mother, played by Christina Baldwin, is surprised to be visited by two Tibetan Buddhist monks (Tsering Dorjee Bawa and a jovial Eric "Pogi" Sumangil) -- though she's not completely shocked, since she's married to a Tibet-born restaurateur (Randy Reyes). The two have a preschool-aged son named Tenzin, who takes the form of a figure created and controlled by puppeteer Masanari Kawahara. The boy, his parents are told, is the reincarnation of a holy lama, and should be brought to a monastery in India, where he can be properly educated for his life as a spiritual leader.

There are a lot of directions the play could go from that setup. It could turn into a drama of intercultural conflict, or a fish-out-of-water comedy, or a parable about faith. Each of those comes into play, but Ruhl's crucial decision was to make it absolutely unambiguous that the boy is in fact the reincarnated lama. The most apt comparison made onstage is that to a musical prodigy who requires special training: When a child has such tremendous gifts, the play argues, they must be respected, even if that's difficult for the parents.

The Oldest Boy is called "a play in three ceremonies," and director Sarah Rasmussen sustains a reverent tone throughout the production, which incorporates actual Buddhist rituals, performed with a weighty sense of ceremony in the hushed Jungle space. While the play has dramatic tension, it doesn't follow a conventional arc of conflict and resolution. Every character seems to know where things are heading, and the play becomes about the process of accepting that necessary end.

The puppet is charmingly rendered by Kawahara, who plays the same character sans puppet in moments when we see the man Tenzin will become (and has been). Baldwin is sympathetic and apologetic, in keeping with the way the character is written: She doesn't judge her husband's faith, which she's trying to embrace, even when that means leaving her son on the other side of the world. She humbles herself before the ancient traditions -- and before her son, who seems to understand the monastery is his true home.

It's an unusual play, to say the least. The Oldest Boy may be best approached as a meditation on love, loss, faith, community, and the power of tradition. In fact, this show about Tibetan Buddhism might just be one of the season's most powerful illustrations of what someone who shares the playwright's Catholic background could call the Christmas spirit.