nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
August 13, 2010
Upon taking my seat at the Robert Moss Theatre, I knew little about Brooke Allen's play Ruby Wilder beyond the basic premise, but the opening strains of Neko Case's "Furnace Room Lullaby" during the pre-show set the stage for what was to come. What followed upon Jess Harpenau's evocative lights dawning was a dark tale of obsession where the lines of time blur as easily as the distinction between who is the hunter in this story and who is the hunted.
Ruby Wilder, played with conviction by Julie Cowden, has spent years haunted by the dual kidnapping of herself and her drug-addled sister Junebug (Jennifer Incorvaia) at the hands of cruel bar cowboy Ozzie (a deliciously despicable Josh Odor). Neal Starbird as Ruby's lovelorn fiance Harper and a hilarious turn by Derek Czaplewski as the omnipotent Narrator round out the solid Chicago-based cast.
The story takes us back and forth in time; this device is as much a part of the script's charm as its curse. In some places, the progression of the timeline perhaps could have been better clarified via the costume design of Sarah Winner. Ruby's frayed, crotch-skimming denim dress and underwear shot full of holes may have been indicative of the character's downward spiral by the end of the play, but mostly felt like a misfire when standing beside her company-man beau. Junebug's ballerina ensemble left me perplexed about her age until about halfway through the play. This confusion was abetted by Incorvaia's coquettish performance as Junebug, although once the script itself clarified she is an adult and a drug addict, her behavior and body carriage made more sense.
I also had some qualms with early scenes between Harper and Ruby, where Harper's condemnation of Ruby's reaction to the kidnapping and disappearance of her sister struck me as though the conclusion of the relationship was being played too soon. Otherwise, I felt Eric Hoff's direction was dealt with a deft hand. The scenic design by Morgan Zvanut, while spare, easily lends itself to being a seedy motel, an apartment, a bar, and even the woods. Andrew Wheatley's sound design is on point from the top with a solo-speaker sound cue of offstage bathroom activity.
There are a number of moments in this production that will stick with me for a while. Among them, there's a beautiful duet on the bed between Harper and Ruby where Ruby confesses to him that she lays upon his chest as he sleeps and listens to his heart. In a later scene after Harper lays Ruby's trust to waste, she destroys him with a simple touch to that very spot that she one cherished. It serves as a poignant comment on how easy it is to decimate that which we love.
Without giving too much away, the play concludes with an action that the Narrator has prophesied all along (as he states early on, he has already read the last page). It would be a clean ending if not for final coda that would better serve the play elsewhere, if not struck entirely. That said, I would heartily recommend Ruby Wilder. It is a production that leaves the viewer as haunted as the title character, and it is an obsession worth having.