Selective memory

Ruby's Story

By Ron Osborne
Directed by Troy Miller
Thirteenth Street Repertory Company
Non-union production (closed)
Review by Deborah S. Greenhut

Ruby's Story, First Prize winner of the 2003 New Works of Merit Playwriting Contest, is a tale of the consequences of war for the heartland families left behind during World War II. The plot centered on a less-told piece of history regarding Nazism in America. Narrated by the eponymous Adult Ruby (Catherine Hennessey), the play took a sentimental journey through 1944 as experienced by Young Ruby (Mary Anne Sayre), the daughter of taciturn, second-generation German-American farmer Walter (Edward Bertgold) and his salt-of-the-earth wife, Grace (Amy Bizjak). Reading from a large scrapbook, Adult Ruby described the tribulations of this woman-dominated house, where she and her three older sisters -- Frieda (Elizabeth Ulmer), Rose (Hella Bel), and Helga (Kelly Barrett) -- came of age. Helga's never-seen husband, Jimmy, was wounded in the war, but Rose and Frieda choose roads less taken in their relationships -- Stan, a Polish-American, and Sid, a Jewish-American (both played by James Nocito). Various misunderstandings between the daughters and their father propel the action of the play. Fear of abandonment colors everything, and the audience learn less about Ruby than about her family.

In addition to the historical shadow of the events of June 1944, there was also the specter of Walter's suspicious politics and their possible consequences. For some reason, although all of the farmers were said to be members of the German-American Bund, Walter was singled out by his peers and his family for harsh resentment.

This subjective, sometimes spooky story of family secrets was assembled effectively on the black-box stage of the 13th Street Repertory Company through a simple set (Heidi Rhodes) dominated by the image of a huge radio drawn in chalk and surrounded by chalked news items of the period. Simple furnishings and slate drawings of apple trees completed the occasionally claustrophobic world of the farmhouse, connected to the outside world through the center aisle of the theatre. Lighting design (Catherine Taylor) and costume design (Kurt Kielmann) were minimal. The details of this production were contained in the relationships and Osborne's exploration of their ambiguities. Troy Miller's direction was occasionally compelling, and certain devices, such as using the daughters' own voices to provide the radio music that fueled their sentiments; the chilling performance by Hella Bel regarding Rose's worst fears; and Elizabeth Ulmer's compelling and spirited presentation of Frieda's attraction to the world beyond the farm contributed great poignance.

The play narrated only filtered memories of Ruby's youth. As she explained, "If one remembers what one wants to remember, I'll remember the before" -- a time of parents dancing and youthful laughter. Ruby grew up in the shadow of a large radio that brought news of the world to the farm. Instead of becoming a broadcast journalist, she turned to a career in elementary-school teaching, supplanting her political curiosity with nostalgia. Ron Osborne's script was faithful to those feelings.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 0
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2004 Deborah S. Greenhut