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Summer Theater showcases playwright with Iowa roots

BY RACHAEL LANDER | JUNE 18, 2009 7:21 AM

The UI theater department’s Iowa Summer Rep began 88 years ago, and it has undergone numerous changes since then, thanks to the artistic direction of Eric Forsythe.

For the past two decades, the department devotes the summer season to the work of one contemporary playwright. In the past, featured playwrights have included Tennessee Williams, Tony Kushner, and Arthur Miller. This summer, the list includes Sarah Ruhl.

Summer Rep will present two stage productions, Dead Man’s Cell Phone and The Clean House, and one staged reading, Eurydice, all by Ruhl; the plays will run in alternate weekends throughout June and July (The Clean House kicks off the festival, premièring Friday at 8 p.m.), and the staged reading will take place on July 19. Tickets can be purchased either individually or as a package.

Though she is not a native Iowan, and she did not attend the UI, the connections she has to the state and the school still run deep. The playwright’s mother is from Davenport, her grandfather received his medical degree from the UI, and her grandmother attended the school as well, later going back to the Writers’ Workshop when she was in her 70s.

“I haven’t had any experiences at the University of Iowa proper, but for visiting one summer,” Ruhl wrote in an e-mail interview. “But all of my early childhood memories of holidays and of family are based on the journey from Chicago to Davenport, where my parents are from.”

Her mother, Kathleen Ruhl, also wrote in an e-mail interview that Davenport was a frequent place the Ruhl family visited, noting that a smattering of trips were taken to Iowa every year.

Not only does Iowa run in the family’s blood, a theater background does as well. The young Ruhl grew up watching her mother act in and direct plays in Chicago.

“[Sarah] liked to pretend to take notes with a yellow legal pad even when she was too young to write,” wrote Kathleen Ruhl in an e-mail interview.

Though her daughter’s early notes were just for play, the elder Ruhl said it was clear Sarah was interested in theater from a very young age.

“Both [Sarah’s sister] Kate and Sarah seemed to enjoy my involvement in theater,” she said. “When I was in or directing a play, they would always know lots of lines. I can remember as we drove around doing errands that I would give a character’s name, and they would both be able to come up with several of that character’s lines.”

Though Sarah Ruhl began her writing career focused on poetry, when she was at Brown University working on an M.F.A., she started to merge her love for theater with her passion for the written word.

“I had a teacher at Brown University, Paula Vogel, who persuaded me to start writing plays,” Ruhl said. “She put one of my plays — Passion Play — in a new-plays festival, and I think it was seeing that work performed in three dimensions that really turned me into a playwright.”

Much of the content of her plays is contemporary, and many plots dabble in technology. She enjoys writing about technology as a means to discover the effect it has on her life and the lives of people around her, she said.

“I think I’ve always felt slightly askew in the modern world, as though I’m a displaced Victorian suddenly holding a cell phone,” she said.

Technology is one of the facets Ruhl uses to connect with her audiences, and though whether intentional or not, she writes about issues that matter to many.

“She speaks very much to today, and of course, that’s what our focus is with Summer Rep — making connections with people on issues that matter to them today,” Forsythe said. “Sarah has a way of doing just that. She deals with contemporary issues — but big, wonderful, surprising issues.”

Much of what Ruhl writes focuses on what Forsythe labeled “extraordinary things happening to ordinary people.” In the case of Dead Man’s Cell Phone, a protagonist finds the cell phone of a recently deceased man and becomes absorbed in his life.

“You come away feeling proud to be human — alive and empowered to make the important step to reach out to your loved one or your family to somehow make a difference,” Forsythe said.

Ruhl’s accomplishments extend past her literary insight. Not only was she a 2005 Pulitzer finalist for The Clean House, she also received a MacArthur Fellowship, a prestigious grant of $500,000 that allows her to focus her attention solely on writing.

“I was strolling my toddler along First Avenue in New York when I got the call,” she wrote. “They ask you to sit down, and I leaned against a wall where several homeless people often urinate. So I was mostly trying to keep it together and not fall over … I was completely taken by surprise, completely grateful.”


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