Sarah Ruhl
Sarah Ruhl
"We live in a culture that's totally afraid of death," says playwright Sarah Ruhl. "But it does seem to be a preoccupation of mine, this tenuous link between living people and dead people. I think most artists worth their salt eventually grapple with questions of mortality. I started writing seriously when my father got sick, and he died fairly young. That was a crucible through which a lot of my impressions were formed. When you have a loss like that, I think you keep re-experiencing it until you finally just don't."

Therefore, it's not surprising that Ruhl, a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Clean House and recipient of a 2006 MacArthur Fellowship -- commonly known as the "genius grant" -- has two works going up that deal with the theme of death.

Eurydice, now in previews at New York City's Second Stage Theater, is a re-working of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, focusing on the latter's journey to the underworld rather than the more commonly told exploits of Orpheus. Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., Woolly Mammoth is giving Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone, in which a young woman finds the cell phone of a recently deceased man and begins answering his calls, its world premiere starting on June 4. (Playwrights Horizons in New York will produce the play during its 2007-2008 season.)

In Eurydice, the play's heroine reunites with her father in the underworld, although she at first fails to recognize him as she's swum through the river of forgetfulness. He knows her, however, and does all he can to make her happy. When Orpheus comes for his ill-fated attempt to rescue her, Eurydice is actually faced with a difficult choice of whether or not to go with him. "In a way, I think I was trying to have more conversations with my own father by writing this story," says Ruhl.

Maria Dizzia and Charles Shaw Robinson in Eurydice
(© Joan Marcus)
Maria Dizzia and Charles Shaw Robinson in Eurydice
(© Joan Marcus)
According to the playwright, there are several advantages of working with a well-known myth. "There's an archetypal recognition of the story, which has been told through so many bodies and voices," she states. "I think there's something about the notion of a lifetime of remorse and regret being contained within the smallest thing -- that one iconic gesture of looking back. I'm also not a big fan of constructing plot, so it's great that it's there and available to you. At the same time, while we know a lot about Orpheus, we have so little information about Eurydice that in a way it's like writing the thing completely from scratch."

The play was seen last year at Yale Repertory Theatre, where it received excellent reviews, and the Second Stage production is once again helmed by director Les Waters and features the same cast. Moreover, Ruhl has done very little revision between the two runs; yet, she feels the productions will not seem identical. "I cut one line," she says. "But it is surprising how a different space with different architecture and different audiences changes things invisibly."

Ruhl has been spending more time in Washington D.C. lately, doing work on Dead Man's Cell Phone. "The inspiration for that play was this image of a dead man in a café whose cell phone kept ringing and ringing," says Ruhl. "I started it four or five years ago, when cell phones were not quite as omnipresent as they are now. So, it might have been a death wish at the time for someone whose phone wouldn't stop ringing." The play's protagonist, however, is a woman named Jean (played by Polly Noonan), whom Ruhl describes as "a little pilgrim in the modern world. She wanders around trying to do good." Jean is also very lonely, and answering the dead man's calls allows her access into a world she never knew she could be a part of.

Polly Noonan in Dead Man's Cell Phone
(© Stan Barouh)
Polly Noonan in Dead Man's Cell Phone
(© Stan Barouh)
The current productions at Second Stage and Woolly Mammoth are further evidence that Ruhl is one of the brightest new stars in the field of playwriting. As a young girl, she watched her mother perform in community theater productions in the Chicago area. She also attended the Piven Theatre Workshop and was heavily influenced by Joyce Piven. But it wasn't until she attended Brown University that she decided to become a playwright, thanks largely to her Pulitzer Prize-winning mentor, Paula Vogel.

"Paula is very good about letting individual voices emerge," states Ruhl. "She doesn't want to stamp an aesthetic onto her playwrights, but instead tries to nurture out of them who they want to be, what they want to say, and how they want to say it. As a result, I think the generation of playwrights she's worked with all reinvent form every time they sit down and write a play."

Ruhl is extremely gratified by the awards and recognitions she's received, but wary about letting them affect her writing process. "The only possible effect it could have would be to make you paralyzed or pompous, neither of which one wants," she says.

While she knows that being named a Pulitzer finalist and a MacArthur recipient has had an impact upon the way her work is viewed, she also states that "it's so hard to say or measure which thing did what. Honestly, the biggest change came when The Clean House won the Susan Smith Blackburn Award in 2004. Theaters that had the play sitting unread on their desks suddenly wanted to do it. That felt like a real watershed. The last few years have been really amazing. These cycles ebb and flow, so I can't get used to it, but right now it's wonderful."

And what does the future hold? "I finally wrote a play with no dead people in it, recently," says Ruhl. "It's about the history of vibrators."