Maggie Siff as Lulu and Jason Butler Harner as Tad Rose in a scene from The Ruby Sunrise by Rinne Groff, now at The Public Theater.
Big dreams, grim realities in Ruby Sunrise
By Scott Harrah
An ambitious tale of an Indiana farmwoman who dreams of making a difference through the invention of television, The Ruby Sunrise is without question one of the years most complex and original dramas. Playwright Rinne Groff attempts to make the story into an epic period piece, telling in act one the tale of Ruby (Marin Ireland) experimenting with inventing TV in 1927, and in act two, the account of her daughter Lulu (Maggie Siff) trying to turn her mothers life story into a TV movie in the 1950s. The play has a fascinating premise and progressive ideas about women and science in the decades before feminism, but the awkward narrative and uneven directing turn what could have been a brilliant drama into a disappointing mediocrity. A story about the idealistic ways in which TV can be used to create a better society might be a wonderful topic for an academic thesis or even an indie film, but the concept is too convoluted and simply not entertaining enough to work as a play. Although this big-budget production has elaborate sets and a talented cast, Ruby Sunrise, like the lead characters ill-fated dream of inventing the cathode ray tube, is filled with static.
Groffs story of an emotionally tortured woman with big ambitions in a rural setting is reminiscent of Tennessee Williams. The character of Ruby Sunrise, a tomboy and a dreamer, is as idealistic, poetic, and mentally deluded as any of Williamss tragic heroines, yet Groff gives us so little of her backstory that its hard for audiences to comprehend whats really behind Rubys passion for inventing television. In the opening scene, Ruby, wearing greasy overalls, toys with a broken generator. We soon learn that shes fled from her abusive father and has been taken in by her sympathetic Aunt Lois (Anne Scurria). When her aunts boardera college student named Henry (Patch Darragh)meets Ruby, he is immediately in awe of her.
There are supposedly romantic sparks flying between the two, but we see no true chemistry. Its hard to believe that a handsome college guy would fall in love with a plain, gawky farm girl whos obsessed with reading Popular Mechanics, has no social skills, and is more interested in her Utopian goals than accepting the affections of such an obvious catch. And whats even more confusing is the fact that Irelanda gifted actress who has appeared in numerous Off-Broadway hits and on TVs Law & Order delivers her lines in a bizarre-sounding Appalachian twang. Anyone whos ever been to the Midwest knows that farmers in Central Indiana (where act one is set) do not talk like hillbillies.
Act two takes place in a TV studio in New York in 1952, at the dawn of televisions Golden Era. Rubys 25-year-old daughter, Lulu Miles, is a gorgeous, glamorous script coordinator working for hotshot producer Martin Marcus (played brilliantly by Richard Masur of One Day At A Time fame). Lulu falls for television writer Tad Rose (Jason Butler Harner) and is convinced that he is the only person who can translate the tale of her mothers noble efforts into a blockbuster TV movie. Maggie Siff gives a radiant, humorous performance as Lulu, but its hard to fathom that a woman this eloquent and elegant could be Rubys daughter, and theres no real explanation as to why shes on a such a crusade to bring her moms story to the masses. Anne Scurria is outstanding in a dual role as the campy, chain-smoking diva Ethel Reed, and Audra Blaser is fun and vivacious as the dumb blonde starlet Suzie Tyrone. The two characters are involved in a subplot about Senator Joseph McCarthys witchhunt of communist actors that simply seems like thematic padding in a play thats already so bogged down with heavy-handed social commentary. Ireland appears as the blacklisted actress Elizabeth Hunter (obviously based on the late Kim Hunter) and plays her with conviction.
Rinne Groff is a promising new voice in the theater, and there are many clever concepts and intellectual ideals in Ruby Sunrise. The trouble is that theres way too much going on here, and Groff never clarifies her themes or the true intentions of her protagonists. The tale could have been streamlined and told with punchier dialogue and fewer over-the-top characters. The sets are just as elaborate, with everything from an Indiana farmhouse and a barn revolving on wheels to a retro 1950s TV studio to a malt shop that seems straight out of Happy Days. Its truly a shame that more thought seems to have been put into these high-tech sets than in creating a sharp and convincing plot.