Lily Janiak May 31, 2022
Whenever I write about the playwright Sarah Ruhl, I reach for metaphors related to glass. Her worlds — Eurydice traveling to Hades, straight married couples whose hormones are aflutter with a newcomer, two sisters with opposite feelings about housecleaning — are exquisite and jagged and fragile. If I love them deeply, for their wry whimsy, for their language that’s wild but focused, there’s still something between them and me, as if they’re fairy tales I’m trying to peer at through a window.
Grief suffuses Ruhl’s plays, but not in the teeth-gnashing, chest-beating way that I tend to experience the feeling. Her characters are quiet, quizzical and offbeat with it, funneling the emotion into little gems of lyricism. In Ruhl’s “Melancholy Play,” now in a Theatre Lunatico production, here’s how Tilly (Shawn Oda) describes the feeling of the title: “I would like to die and be reborn as a mushroom. I would like to stay warm and slightly damp. I will release spores now and again when it suits my mood.”
In our own era of grief upon grief upon grief, I found new release in that line; it didn’t feel like a perfect little epigram but like an invitation. It takes sadness and makes something flavorful. Its sadness is generative, which means its sadness has a point — which isn’t how mine usually feels.
Sakura Nakahara as Frances rehearses Sarah Ruhl’s “Melancholy Play” with Theatre Lunatico at La Val’s Subterranean in Berkeley.Photo: Don Feria / Special to The Chronicle
In the play, which was written in 2002, Tilly’s melancholy makes everyone she meets fall in love with her. Ruhl, in an author’s note, says that quality distinguishes melancholy from depression, a more isolating condition. I still wasn’t sure I grasped the distinction, so I asked Tina Taylor, who is directing “Melancholy Play” for Theatre Lunatico in Berkeley, what’s so lovable about Tilly’s sadness.
“She wears her heart on her sleeve,” Taylor said. “We all put up a protective shield, and it’s like she doesn’t have one.”
Tilly thirsts. She slurps up her surroundings, never gets full, smacks her lips then delights in the smacking.
“She puts you in touch with that deeper self, she opens that door, and then it’s exposed and vulnerable,” Taylor added.
Director Tina Taylor observes rehearsals of Sarah Ruhl’s “Melancholy Play” performed by Theatre Lunatico at La Val’s Subterranean in Berkeley.Photo: Don Feria / Special to The Chronicle
That’s how I felt, reading Tilly’s words and then watching Lunatico rehearse: exposed and vulnerable, as if someone had seen my fiercest longings. In that state, it’s natural to want someone to stay with you, but that’s not what Tilly does with her therapist, her hairdresser, her hairdresser’s partner, the retinue of would-be lovers. “She moves on, and you’re stuck behind,” Taylor said. “You want to be able to move on, but you’re not ready.”
I had an option that Tilly’s lovers don’t, which is to read “Smile: The Story of a Face,” Ruhl’s 2021 memoir about developing Bell’s palsy after the birth of her twins. The condition caused one side of her face to droop. She couldn’t smile or, at first, even blink with one of her eyes. An attempt at a grin yielded only a lopsided grimace.
Playwright Sarah Ruhl with the costumes being made for her play, “Becky Nurse of Salem,” at Berkeley Rep.Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle 2019
This loss was both small, relative to Ruhl’s fear of losing her twins during a complicated pregnancy and birth, and incalculably large. Without a smile, how do you charm strangers and share joy and love with your family? How do you show sympathy and understanding? What substitute language must you develop to perform the myriad social cues, once fulfilled by a smile, that our world requires of women especially? Without a smile, do you start to suppress the urge to smile and then lead a flatter emotional life?
The book, which is also an incisive, vivid account of being a mother and a theater artist in a world hostile to both, is as full of poetic observations as Ruhl’s plays are: “Why is it that people don’t generally grin, showing teeth, while they are painted or photographed naked? Is the smile a stand-in for the body’s own nakedness, and added to a naked body, too much, a hat on a hat?” And: “A man’s injunction for a woman to smile as she walks down the street is not an injunction for that woman to experience joy, but for the woman to notice the man walking toward her. The man feels left out of her interior experience — and he feels entitled to tell her what to feel.”
Director Anne Kauffman (left) and playwright Sarah Ruhl listen to a reading during a rehearsal of “Becky Nurse of Salem” for Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley.Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle 2019
Yet it might be Ruhl’s account of rediscovering spirituality that I return to most. Like Ruhl, I was raised Catholic in the Midwest. In “Smile,” she quotes theologian Serene Jones: “The purpose of prayer is not a thing to be gotten, healed or fixed, but instead ‘a simple but constant practice of consciously lifting up our messy, mixed-up, hard-hearted lives before God, and in doing so, knowing that God is present.’ ”
Instantly, I felt Ruhl could have been writing about theater, too, or just art. We who go to the theater multiple times per week often liken the experience to going to church — the pilgrimage to a specific place at a specific time, the ritual, the rows of seats, the shared will to believe that something not quite of this world happens, the trust that it’s OK to feel something deeply, even among strangers.
Often I walk into a venue hoping what I see that day will somehow fix me or cleanse me. But what’s just as powerful as any script is carving out space and time to do nothing more than witness and receive. In a secular world, art is my grief ritual, and Sarah Ruhl is one of my guiding lights.
Smile: The Story of a Face
By Sarah Ruhl
(Simon and Schuster; 256 pages; $27)
“Melancholy Play”: Written by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Tina Taylor. Through June 19. $5-$40. La Val’s Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. https://theatrelunatico.org
Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic.