Playwright Sarah Ruhl gets a lot of love in the Madison theater scene. Madison Theater Guild has staged her work twice in the last few years—2014’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and 2015’s “The Clean House” while American Players Theater just staged “Eurydice,” one of Ruhl’s best works, last season.
There’s good reason. Ruhl has an innate understanding of humanity’s desperate need to understand and connect with each other, and a graceful way of communicating that through her writing and characters. It’s one of the things that drew Emily Morrison-Weeks to direct Kathie Rassmussen Women’s Theatre (KRASS) production of Ruhl’s “Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce,” which opens this evening, Friday, August 11, and runs for the next two weekends at the Bartell Theatre.
“She focuses on the feelings people feel when they’re by themselves,” says Morrison-Weeks of Ruhl. “This play smashes all the rules about talking about not being happy."
Unhappiness (or rather melancholy) is certainly an issue for Tilly, the character around whom the play’s action revolves. While everyone else in the play encourages Tilly (played by Shirley Nwangwa) to try to cure/escape her sadness, Tilly chooses to embrace it, drawing the play’s other four characters—five if you count cellist Tracy M. Smith, who’s onstage for the entire play—into her orbit.
“This play is about a character who has a different relationship with her emotions,” says Morrison. “It gets at our valuation of emotions. Do we value happiness over the other emotions? It’s meant to be thought provoking in that regard.”
Ruhl’s plays are definitely thought provoking. They also have a penchant for the absurd, which, depending on your taste in storytelling style, can sometimes get in the way of fully appreciating her plays’ messages. In “Melancholy Play,” one of the characters undergoes a dramatic and unexpected transformation late in the play that confounds the other characters—as well as the audience.
“I’ve worked with the actors to think about the reality in the absurd moment,” Morrison-Weeks says. “Luckily, I feel like the playwright prepares us a little for it. It’s not a sudden transformation, and I think that helped my actors connect and not feel overwhelmed by it.”
Morrison-Weeks is also making a point of emphasizing the play’s humanity. Another of the play’s characters, a flamboyant psychiatrist named Lorenzo who falls in love with Tilly, has the very real potential to become a cartoonish caricature. Morisson-Weeks coached a more analytical process—based on process.
Not that Lorezno and the others won’t generate plenty of laughs. Melancholy may be the order of the day here, but let’s not forget that Ruhl included the word “farce” in her title.
“It’s definitely not a downer play,” says Morrison-Weeks. “There are so many ways for people to laugh at it.”
“Melancholy Play” runs through August 19. For ticket information, click here.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.