Tibetan Buddhism and a Mother's Love at Odds in Main Street's The Oldest Boy

Lloyd Wayne Taylor, Nova Wang, Molly Wetzel, Fong Chau, Pin Lim and Ario X. Boentaran in Main Street Theater's production of The Oldest Boy: A Play in Three Ceremonies.
Lloyd Wayne Taylor, Nova Wang, Molly Wetzel, Fong Chau, Pin Lim and Ario X. Boentaran in Main Street Theater's production of The Oldest Boy: A Play in Three Ceremonies. Photo by Alan Nguyen
Not too long ago, there was an opinion piece in The New York Times about deliberate parenting. Dr. Emily Oster, an author and professor of economics at Brown University, built her essay off the idea that the decision-making required of parents of older children feels "weightier than early parenting choices, that they matter more in the long term and that making a mistake is somehow worse."

Her example, nine-year-old wanting to join a travel soccer team, seems downright quaint in comparison to the choice put before a mother in Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy: A Play in Three Ceremonies, now making its regional premiere over at Main Street Theater.

The play opens with a woman, identified in the program only as “Mother,” attempting – and failing – to meditate in her living room while her toddler sleeps. Just after she’s given up, grabbed a bag of chips and readied herself to read a book on attachment parenting, two Tibetan monks, one of them a lama, arrive at her doorstep. They know of her husband, a Tibetan refugee and restaurant owner, and she invites them in to wait for him to come home. They make non-small small talk until he arrives home and that’s when the monks reveal the reason for their visit: The lama tells the two parents that he believes their two- almost three-year-old son, Tenzin, is the reincarnation of his 79-year-old teacher who passed away three years earlier. If he is, they would like to take him to a monastery in India for training.

Interestingly, the drama of Ruhl’s play doesn’t come from some kind of will-they-or-won’t-they question. It’s obvious within the world of the play that Tenzin is, in fact, this reincarnated teacher, and the idea of him going to India for training is practically a forgone conclusion well before the second act opens in the Indian monastery. The drama comes from the question of how. How will this mother come to terms with letting her son go if it’s the right thing to do?

Director Sophia Watt navigates the emotion of Ruhl’s play with an almost choreographic eye. Watt’s approach is sophisticated and carefully restrained when necessary, as well as efficient. Watt also shows a way with the actors, who all shine in their performances.

Molly Wetzel portrays Tenzin’s mother with heart-wrenching anguish. We practically see her make her way through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief as she comes to terms with the news that the monks bring, and with each stage Wetzel mines new emotional ground for her character, particularly memorable is her brief, but desperate attempt at bargaining (asking if she could learn everything he needs to know and be his teacher). Opposite Wetzel is Fong Chau, who manages to walk the line of calm acceptance without veering into overly placid or cold. Lloyd Wayne Taylor is a treat as the good-natured and smiley lama, who exudes compassion in every interaction with Wetzel. As a monk, Nova Wang is equally compassionate, but it’s tempered with a very grounded concern.
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Pin Lim as The Oldest Boy with puppet by Afsaneh Aayani and Molly Wetzel as Mother in Main Street Theater's production of The Oldest Boy: A Play in Three Ceremonies.
Photo by Alan Nguyen
Now, let’s talk about the puppet.

If you put your finger on the pulse of the audience at Sunday’s show, you’d find that Afsaneh Aayani’s bunraku-style puppet, which stood in as Tenzin, was divisive to say the least. Admittedly, it’s different, if practical. I certainly can’t imagine trying to do a show such as The Oldest Boy with an actual toddler, and no, I definitely don’t want to see the role embodied by an adult no matter how short they are. But more than practical, placing the puppet in relation to Pin Lim, who voices Tenzin and stands behind the puppet in many scenes, emphasizes Tenzin’s status as the reincarnated teacher. It’s something we can never doubt nor lose sight of. It helps, of course, how smoothly the actors interact with the puppet, not to mention Tenzin’s consistent mannerisms, such as swiping away the touch when someone would ruffle his hair or pinch at his cheek, as well as how easily Lim moves between “boy asking for corn flakes” and “man in the body of a boy remembering that time monkeys stole his flip-flops in Kathmandu.”

The point is, this critic likes the puppet and didn’t find it nearly as bothersome as some others clearly did.

In addition to the puppet, Aayani designed the set, which goes from middle-class American home with an artfully placed mess (to indicate the presence of a young child) in the first act, to a monastery in India in the second. Between the ceremonial moments of the first act, including the prominent use of larger-than-life scarves (traditional in Tibetan Buddhism) and the bare, wooden backdrop and large mandala painted on the floor in the second, Aayani cleverly evokes the sacred, as do Victoria Nicolette Gist’s costumes. (That said, Gist’s most fun contribution may be when we meet the mother and see her wearing a shirt adorned with Nirvana – the band, not the concept.)

Aayani’s only possible misstep is the three bright blue circles adorning the background in the second act. Even though their presence is brief and dramatic, I saw blue circles when I blinked for some moments after seeing them, and it reminded me of the circle on the tip of a tonometer, which isn’t exactly pleasant. Speaking of dramatic, the bold choices lighting designer David Gipson and sound designer Yesminne Zepeda’s made throughout the production serve it well. The world of Ruhl’s play moves between the present and the past, and between cultures, and Gipson and Zepeda make these moves seem graceful.

Gently emotional and touchingly intelligent, Main Street Theater’s production of The Oldest Boy: A Play in Three Ceremonies is a gripping, thought-provoking play. Not even a questionable choice by Ruhl in the second act – something I won’t spoil but that could easily come off almost like a consolation prize and undermine the drama – can stump this production, which is yet another winner in Main Street’s season.

Performances of The Oldest Boy: A Play in Three Ceremonies will continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Main Street Theater – Rice Village, 2540 Times. Through April 23 with no performance on April 9. For more information, call 713-524-6706 or visit $35-$59.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.