Sarah Ruhl is one of the most interesting playwrights in the country these days, with popular works like Dead Man’s Cell Phone, The Clean House, and In the Next Room, all of which have played local stages.
…reflects the rich career that was still to come for Ruhl.
Only now is her first play, Late: a Cowboy Song getting a local premiere by the innovative No Rules Theatre Company in their Signature Theatre residency.
It’s brash and disarming in the manner of Ruhl plays, with actors spouting blank verse with even blanker expressions. But it also has the feel of an early work in that as dazzling as it sometime is on stage; and as well acted as it is throughout, it lacks a kind of cohesive whole and strong dramatic shape.
Sarah Olmsted Thomas plays Mary, a young Pittsburgh wife whose husband Crick (Chris Dinolfo) is out of work. He’s needy and jealous of her friendship with an old friend named Red (Alyssa Wilmoth). Red is a cowgirl, who is sometimes mistaken for a cowboy. She’s got masculine traits, a drawl, can sing very pretty cowboy songs with a guitar, and talks very slowly when she talks at all. This is in contrast to the husband, Crick, who talks all the time quite fast.
Speed is an issue in the play directed by Rex Daughertry, who also wrote the music for the cowboy songs with Kinsey Charles. The opening moments have Mary caught in a vortex of noise and sound (from sound designer Brandon Roe), providing a metaphor for modern life, that can leave some in stunned stupor.
Cory Ryan Frank’s deceptively simple set on the smaller of the Signature stages features a fence on which Red sits, a table at a Chinese restaurant where she and Mary sometime sit, drinking wine and reading too much into fortune cookies, and then the cramped domestic scene of the married couple’s couch and a small kitchen.
Behind the three settings is one long continuous white screen about a yard high that shifts colors as needed and is especially effective when reflecting a sunset.
But if a lot of credit go to Frank’s set and lighting design, a lot should also go to stage manager Julie Meyer — if only for one delightful scene that shows the swift passage of a year through its holidays, dependent on the unveiling of key objects from clever hiding places.
Classic old country songs from Hank WIlliams and Ernest Tubb are heard before the curtain; in the play, the songs are more observational folk songs — it could have used more of them, as Wilmoth has quite an evocative voice. But she’s even better when she’s laconic, demonstrating how slow timing brings the biggest laughs every time.
But Olmsted Thomas, a member of the ace Happenstance Theater Company, knows a little something about comedy as well, and she moves through the stage like a dancer. Poor Crick never gets the chance to break out of his nervous shell, though when he finally reads her diary, he picks up a baseball bat.
Even if it doesn’t add up as neatly as you’d like it to, there is a freshness to Late that reflects the rich career that was still to come for Ruhl.
It’s another nifty production for the No Rules Theatre, further distinguishing itself as a strong local player as it starts its second season at Signature bringing its Winston-Salem and D.C. based theatre company to Arlington, VA for shows.
Running Time: 95 minutes, no intermission.
Advisory: some adult themes and language.
The No Rules Theatre production of Late: A Cowboy Song runs through Jan. 19 at the Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA. Tickets from 703-820-9771 or online.