The curtains at the Jungle Theater open on a serene scene as Christina Baldwin sits Buddha-style onstage, facing us with eyes closed. She opens them to see an audience staring hungrily at her. But she’s not ready yet. So, calmly, she turns her back to us and continues to meditate.
Suddenly, she is roused by the cry of her waking toddler.
This understated, charmingly self-possessed bit of stage business telegraphs the journey we take in “The Oldest Boy,” the sweet, spirit-filled Sarah Ruhl play that had its regional premiere Friday in Minneapolis.
Big questions swirl in small gestures in this 2014 work, which nominally is about parental attachment and letting go. Director Sarah Rasmussen’s elegantly evocative production invites us into different ways of seeing ourselves and our world.
Baldwin plays Mother, a white woman married to a Tibetan restaurant owner named Father (Randy Reyes). Ruhl makes these characters archetypal, as if to nod to other religious systems.
Father is at work when the doorbell rings. A lama (Eric “Pogi” Sumangil) and a monk (Tsering Dorjee Bawa) have come for a visit. They believe the couple’s 3-year-old son is the reincarnation of their lama, or spiritual teacher. They wish to take away the Boy (a puppet manipulated by Masanari Kawahara) so he can grow up in a monastery to live out his spiritual destiny.
In a wistful performance, Baldwin registers the honor of giving birth to a child considered an exalted spiritual teacher and the horror of potentially losing that child. She expresses Mother’s anguish in suppressed sighs and brimming, glassy tears that don’t quite spill.
The same deep feelings mark Reyes’ Father, who fights his emotions more effectively, but betrays them nonetheless. In his crisp delivery, he’s like a man conflicted in battle. He struggles vividly between religious and parental duty, all the while cratering on the inside.
Kawahara does moving work as the Boy, investing his puppet with playfulness and wisdom. Sumangil’s smiling lama is genial and winsome, but his words come across less as a request than a fait accompli.
Traditional Tibetan music and dance performed by Yeshi Samdup add to the show’s cultural depth. Mina Kinukawa’s spare set and Sonya Berlovitz’s simple costumes keep the focus clearly on the emotional and spiritual gravity of Ruhl’s play.
Ruhl typically uses the stage to explore unexpected places and ideas. “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play,” presented by the Jungle in 2012, took us into the curious history of sex toys. “The Clean House,” produced by Mixed Blood Theatre in 2007, went in search of the perfect joke.
“The Oldest Boy” continues to reveal her curiosity, getting us in the mind of parents who must let go of their children a little sooner than usual.
The Oldest Boy
Who: By Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Sarah Rasmussen.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sun. Ends Dec. 18.
Where: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $35-$48. 612-822-7063 or jungletheater.com.