- Women’s Voices on American Stages in the Early Twenty-First Century: Sarah Ruhl and Her Contemporaries by Leslie Atkins Durham
Until Leslie Atkins Durham’s new book, James Al-Shamma had the Ruhl market well and truly cornered with his thorough 2011 volume on the (then) complete works of Sarah Ruhl: Sarah Ruhl: A Critical Study of the Plays. But with her latest text, Durham makes an admirable contribution to the discussion surrounding one of the most well-known and frequently produced women playwrights of the current century. What makes this book particularly useful, though, is that Durham does not stop with Ruhl; rather Ruhl’s popularity is the wedge in the academic door that allows entry to a much broader and deeper conversation. Durham claims that “Ruhl’s work should not be read in isolation, because her work is part of a larger conversation by female playwrights about the values present in and missing from contemporary American culture” (5). With this in mind, Women’s Voices is a rigorous exercise in context and consciousness raising and an excellent exploration of the works of a handful of noteworthy contemporary women playwrights of the American stage—some of whom are already widely recognized in their own right (e.g., Lynn Nottage and Young Jean Lee), and some of whom who have yet to receive as much mainstream attention (e.g., Kia Corthron and Bathsheba Doran).
In the introduction, Durham describes the twenty-first-century stage as one that is not particularly welcoming to women’s voices, citing the dearth of women playwrights in production on Broadway and their under-representation on the lists of winners of major playwriting awards. However, Ruhl has undeniably achieved great success despite the inhospitable environment, so Durham lays out Ruhl’s career, achievements, and prominence, painting a careful picture of her importance. Rather than her well-known association with Paula Vogel, this account focuses on Ruhl’s early years with the Piven Theatre Workshop in Illinois, including the adaptations of pieces by Virginia Woolf and Anton Chekhov commissioned by Piven. Durham shows Ruhl’s pool of dramatic inspiration to be deep and varied, making her work fertile ground for the intricate readings Durham will undertake in the following pages. And her overall project to use a commercially prominent writer as a springboard for the elevation of other “famous and not-yetbut-should-be famous” writers (8) is definitely a worthy and engaging one.
Once the study gets going, each chapter is anchored by analysis of one of Ruhl’s plays, which then expands into that play’s conversation on a specific topic [End Page 341] as it is borne out by two additional plays by two additional writers. In the chapter titled “Emotional Journeys,” Durham reads Ruhl’s ode to her deceased father, Eurydice, against Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Jenny Schwartz’s God’s Ear through their shared concern with mourning and grief. “They disarm conventional gendered expectations of the look and sound of grief while they show how important it is not just in the lives of dramatic characters but in the lives of those in the audience who hurt with them” (52). The next chapter, “Caring Labor,” centers on one of Ruhl’s most well-known works, The Clean House, connecting its depiction of domestic service and homemaking to Lisa Loomer’s Living Out and Diana Son’s Satellites. Durham invokes feminist economist Nancy Folbre’s questions about the economic value of the traditionally female work of caring for the family as a critical foundation for her observations about the dynamics at work in all three plays. “Theatrical Devotion” is, unsurprisingly, a treatment of the role of religious devotion in Ruhl’s ambitious Passion Play, alongside 100 Saints You Should Know by Kate Fodor and Church by Young Jean Lee, with particular attention paid to the reappropriation of Christian symbology for feminist ends. In the chapter “Mobile Lines,” Durham...