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A CurtainUp Review
The Ruby Sunrise
By Elyse Sommer
In The Ruby Sunrise, Groff's entertaining new play making its New York debut at the Public Theater, she has again moved back in time and invented another girl with more on her mind than marriage and babies. While the three-part, two act play (the first set in 1927 and the second in 1952) is too cleverly complex to be entirely credible, the production is compellingly staged by the Public Theater's new Artistic Director Oskar Eustis (he also directed it at the Humana Festival and his former home, Trinity Rep.
The daughter of an engineer and avid reader of Popular Mechanics and Science and Invention, Ruby (Marin Ireland) knows more than a thing or two about generators and wires and electrons and her dream is to build and patent an all electric television set. While Ruby is a fictional character, her frantic quest to be the television inventor of record fits into a long timeline of people who contributed ideas to television's eventual birth which coincides with the time when we watch Ruby tinkering in the garage of the Indiana farm house of Lois Haver (Anne Scurria). And, by golly, she does put together a workable image projection contraption though the race to the patent office was won by Philo Farnsworth who called his invention the Image Dissector.
The fact that the hard-drinking Lois is not pleased to have the orphaned Ruby in her home adds to the girl's frantic determination. The reason for the older woman's bitterness dates back to when the man she loved ran off with her now dead sister and the man is, of course, Ruby's smart but apparently abusive daddy who according to her is now also dead. Ruby does find a strong supporter, at least at first, in Henry (Patch Darragh), an agricultural college student who is Lois's boarder. So there we are -- with lots of heady talk about vibrational patterns and electromagnetic radiation but enough personal complications to add an extra sweet yet bitter romantic twist to Ruby's story.
Ruby isn't quite the bravura role that made Marin Ireland's portrayal of Karl Jung's patient Sabina Spielrein in Sabina so memorable, but the actress does capture the regional twang and energy of this "crazy girl from Kokomo." However, even the talented Ms. Ireland can't keep Ruby's grand vision of television as the ultimate peace-maker from sounding more like an authorial voice than a real person.
When events fast forward to 1952 we land in a New York television studio at the beginning of television's golden era (the era of memorable plays like Twelve Angry Men and Marty) which was also a time that brought some of its more insidious side effects like the McCarthy witch hunts. Though the first act's three characters are gone, the actors playing them make comebacks in different roles. However, the key figures this time are another twosome: Tad Rose (Jason Butler Harner), a writer who, like Ruby, has big creative dreams; and Lulu (Maggie Siff), a smart script girl who just happens to be Ruby's daughter and wants to use the medium that propelled her mom's dreams to tell her true story.
Not surprisingly, when pushed by the smarmy studio producer (Richard Masur) to come up with a script, the milktoasty Tad parks his conscience long enough to burglarize the story Lulu has shared with him. This paves the way for the rehearsals for Ruby's story to kick up a barrel full of worms to diminish the story. To start with, the actress who's the first choice Ruby (Ireland -- who else?) has been blacklisted and the wimpy studio head brings aboard a ditzy replacement (hilariously portrayed by Audra Blaser). Darragh as a politically correct actor plays the TV script's version of Henry and Anne Scurria, the disappointed in love Aunt Lois, is even better as the over-the-hill but still larger-than-life actress playing her for the small screen.
Eugene Lee's scenic design, Deborah Newhall's costumes and Deb Sullivan's subtle lighting enhance the enjoyment of both the the 1927 and 1952 scenes. Hokey, ideal-spouting bits of dialogue are scattered like so many breadcrumbs along the way to the all's well -- but not quite well -- ending. But in a world where ideals and honor are in short supply, who can fault Groff's for posing so many intriguing political and sociological questions, especially when the finale in which the story -- a case of compromise but not total surrender -- is so engagingly enacted both on stage and a large TV screen?
LINKS TO OTHER PLAYS BY RINNE GROFF:
Hysterical Girls Theorem
Jimmy Carter was a Democrat
Science or Math Related Plays
Groff has another play, What Then, scheduled for production by Clubbed Thumb at the Ohio Theater. For dates, see our Off-Broadway Listings.
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