The Secret Ruths of Island House
nytheatre.com review by Jesica Avellone
August 13, 2006
I laughed! I cried! I wanted to call you immediately and beg you to see it. Yes—you! With The Secret Ruths of Island House, Nebunele Theatre takes that elementary school assignment to interview your grandmother about her life to mature, inventive levels, slyly rewriting the book on documentary theatre.
For two years, Claytie Mason and Alissa Mortenson (credited with Nebunele as the playwrights) immersed their young selves in the lives of seven women named Ruth living at the Island House, a retirement community in the Pacific Northwest. The resulting play, not even an hour long and directed with sensitive cunning by Cecelia Frye, is a time-twisting theatrical abstraction. It is by turns a haunting and hilarious glimpse into the lives and memories of these remarkable, normal women.
Through a thoughtful simplicity, Mason, Mortenson, and third actor Annalisa Derr manage consistently complex images that guide their audience into the world of "the Ruths." Theirs is a patient existence, one that does not feel involved in the present and therefore turns its attention to the past. For this play, Mason and Mortenson have created three fictional Ruths, and each actor plays one at her present age and another as her younger self. I should mention that a chief storytelling device in Secret Ruths is a recording of the actual Ruths of Island House, heard as an effectively disorienting voiceover, and masterfully edited and designed by Jon Boley. There is no escaping the unscripted reality of their thoughts, especially when illustrated with the starkly stylized movement that permeates the physical vocabulary of the play.
When the actors play the old women, they don transformative and individual masks—arrestingly constructed by Mason—and adopt the posture of the elderly. Although the masks render them silent, I love that these women are never clowns. Another brave, wise choice of the company's is not to distance themselves from the audience by adopting "old lady" voices. Memories are shown in choreographed sequences with straightforward text, so when a theme recurs, its urgency is that much more heightened.
Mason, Mortenson, and Derr are to be commended for their effortless performances, creating unique personalities while enmeshed as an ensemble. Mason is especially strong, piercing her Ruth with a defiant sarcasm even as she confesses her fear of losing her mind. Mortenson's Ruth guides us through the play with her kind pluck, and Derr's is sweetly loveable.
The only critique I can offer is that the sequences involving choreography and mask are so theatrically exciting that naturalistic scenes feel slightly forced, as though the company isn't quite sure where to place themselves. The play also rides a fine line between respect and sentimentality, but it never gives in.
Nebunele has done superb work on Secret Ruths, embracing the medium of theatre while relating true stories. I cannot recommend this insightful play more enthusiastically.