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Follow the Ruhl in Eurydice

A talented playwright focuses on an oft-overlooked figure

The keening ache of loss and death is at the center of Sarah Ruhl's extraordinary Eurydice, now playing at the Alley Theatre. But there is so much more to this magically theatrical story, in which the young playwright, who has already been nominated for a Pulitzer (for The Clean House) and won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," turns her imagination to the Orpheus tale of the underworld. Right off, Ruhl turns things upside down, as she focuses on Orpheus's much-loved wife Eurydice instead of her more famous musician husband. After all, it's the oft-overlooked Eurydice who dies twice and is doomed for eternity to Hades.

The gorgeous collage of a tale opens with the moment Orpheus (Jay Sullivan) proposes to Eurydice (Mary Rasmussen) one day while they are about to go for a swim. They are the quintessential young couple of today, all decked out in funky swimwear and looking happy enough, but it's pretty clear they are troubled by a totally modern problem — they have a communication issue. He is only interested in the music he writes and is not much good at listening to her notions about the books she loves to read. But she forgives him; they are young and in love, and as Eurydice tells us later, she knows there is a price one pays for being in love with an artist like Orpheus.

It's on their wedding day, after the ceremony, that things go really south. For one, Eurydice is a bit disappointed that there aren't more "interesting" people at the event. And when she wanders off by herself to get a glass of water, she runs into a strange "Interesting" Man (David Rainey), who claims to have a letter for Eurydice from her dead father. Intrigued but suspicious, Eurydice agrees to follow the man back to his high-rise, where she mysteriously slips and falls to her death, and then to Hades, where she arrives via an elevator in which it is always pouring rain.

Ruhl's work gets truly mesmerizing when she is tweaking reality, allowing the Interesting Man in a shiny gray suit to show up when he's least expected, carrying a letter from the underworld. And it is in the underworld that Ruhl's theatrical vision really takes off. Under the land of the living there are no rules of reality, and big ideas — like the limits of language to express what one feels, the desire for the living to connect with the dead, and the sweet sorrow of remembering versus the easy emptiness of forgetting — all dance across the stage in ways that are funny, odd and gently moving.

When she arrives, with an empty suitcase and an umbrella, Eurydice tells of her long journey. She has been dipped in a river of forgetting. That's why, when she comes across her father, she doesn't recognize him. Instead, she thinks he's a hotel porter. Her father (John Feltch) is overjoyed to see his beloved daughter. And when she asks for a room in a land where rooms are not allowed, he builds her one with a ball of twine. This slow and steady labor, combined with the beautiful image of the room, is one of the most powerful scenes in the entire play. Feltch is the soul of this production, and his tender and simple ministrations to Eurydice capture the very essence of fatherly love.

Slowly, her father helps her remember. But all the while, A Chorus of Stones — Little Stone (Melissa Pritchett), Loud Stone (Philip Lehl) and Big Stone (Justin Doran), dressed in dusty Victorian garb and wearing white eyes — keeps telling the duo to dip themselves in the river so they can forget. And Orpheus is up in the world of the living, madly trying to find Eurydice. He sends multiple letters; in Ruhl's world, the space between the living and the dead has some wiggle room. And when he finally discovers a way down to Eurydice and finds her, she is faced with a terrible choice: her father or her husband. Either way, she will know loss.

There is so much to recommend this production. Gregory Boyd's direction and Hugh Landwehr's set, which drips rain from every corner, make the play come alive with strange joys. Lehl, Doran and Pritchett's chorus is very funny as they stump about in their strange cadence. Rainey is truly disturbing, especially when he reappears as the Lord of the Underworld, an often impudent and nasty child. Sullivan and Rasmussen make a sweet and innocent pair of lovers. And Feltch is simply magnificent — both quiet and deeply felt, his presence imbues this production with an aching tenderness. No one should miss this production. It will haunt your days and live in your dreams.

 
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