Sarah Ruhl is certainly one of the most decorated playwrights of our time: she is a MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient, Whiting Writers’ Award and Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award winner, Tony Award Nominee and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, to name just a few of her many accomplishments. But perhaps even more so, she is cherished. Celebrated for their exploration of the human experience with lyricism, humor and authenticity, her plays have been produced on Broadway and around the world to universal acclaim.
Dive into the rich worlds of Ruhl’s work with the following five plays.
Hailed by The New Yorker’s John Lahr as “extraordinary,” “bold” and “inventive,” Passion Play – Ruhl’s very first play, written over the course of 12 years – takes audiences behind the scenes of three very different communities attempting to stage the death and resurrection of Christ.
This intimate epic occurs at the timely intersection of politics and religion. Ruhl dramatizes a community of players rehearsing their annual staging of the Easter Passion in different eras: 1575 Northern England, just before Queen Elizabeth outlaws the ritual; 1934 Oberammergau, Bavaria, as Hitler is rising to power; and Spearfish, South Dakota, from the time of Vietnam through Reagan’s presidency. In each period, the players grapple with the transformative nature of art, and politics are never far in the background.
Passion Play received its world premiere at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in 2005, directed by Molly Smith.
Ruhl’s debut Broadway play and second Pulitzer finalist was inspired by a bizarre fact: in the 1880s, at the dawn of the age of electricity, doctors used vibrators to treat ‘hysterical’ women (and occasionally men). In the Next Room or the vibrator play tells the story of a well-to-do Victorian home, where Dr. Givings has innocently invented this extraordinary new device. Adjacent to the doctor’s laboratory, his young and energetic wife tries to tend to their newborn daughter — and wonders exactly what is going on in the next room. When a new patient and her husband bring a wet nurse and their own complicated relationship into the doctor’s home, Dr. and Mrs. Givings must examine the nature of their own marriage, and what it truly means to love someone.
After premiering at Berkeley Rep, In the Next Room opened at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre in 2009, starring Laura Benanti, Michael Cerveris, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Maria Dizzia, Thomas Jay Ryan, Wendy Rich Stetson and Chandler Williams. Celebrated as a “smart, charming, iridescently funny-serious jewel” (Bloomberg), the production was nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Play.
One of Ruhl’s most beloved plays, Eurydice reimagines the classic myth of Orpheus through the eyes of its heroine. Dying too young on her wedding day, Eurydice must journey to the underworld, where she reunites with her father and struggles to remember her lost love. The play is both a fresh look at this timeless love story, as well as a personal one; it was written as a way to connect with her father, who was diagnosed with cancer when she was 18 and passed two years later. Fragments of her life and grief are weaved into the play’s text, mixing memoir with the mythical.
Eurydice premiered off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre in June, 2007. Ruhl adapted the play into her first opera libretto with composer Matthew Aucoin, which premiered at The Metropolitan Opera in November, 2021.
A deeply personal work, this play was written as a birthday gift for Kathleen Ruhl, Sarah’s mother.
When Ann thinks of her father, she remembers playing Peter Pan in her hometown theater in Iowa, where he used to bring her flowers after her performance. Her memory is jogged by the fact that she and her siblings are in a hospital room during his final moments. Now without parents, the children all realize how, and when, they grew up – except Ann, who played the role of Peter Pan on stage at 15, so she never had to. Kathleen Ruhl played the same role at this formative age and, just like Ann, had “an ambivalent relationship with the word ‘grown-up.’” (Observer). Sarah interviewed her mother, aunt and uncles to craft the show’s raw, veracious family dynamics.
In 2017, following the show’s off-Broadway debut, For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday premiered in Chicago at The Shattered Globe, starring Kathleen Ruhl as Ann.
Sarah Ruhl’s latest work follows Becky, an ordinary but strong-willed grandmother just trying to get by in post-Obama America. She’s also the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Rebecca Nurse, who was infamously executed for witchcraft in 1692. Out of work, out of love and desperate to raise her troubled teenaged granddaughter right, Becky visits a local witch for help – but those spells and potions don’t work out exactly as planned. Born from parallels between the witch trials and moderns cries for the punishment of powerful women, this play – through laughter, romance, magic and misogyny – takes a look at how times have changed, or not, for women in America.
Becky Nurse of Salem premiered off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater in 2022. Directed by Rebecca Taichman, the production featured Deirdre O’Connell, Bernard White, Tina Benko, Candy Buckley, Alicia Crowder, Thomas Jay Ryan and Julian Sanchez.
Notably excluded from this list are the following plays:
- Dead Man’s Cell Phone (US/UK)
- Dear Elizabeth (US/UK)
- How To Transcend a Happy Marriage (US/UK)
- Late, A Cowboy Song (US/UK)
- Letters From Max (US/UK)
- Melancholy Play (US/UK)
- Melancholy Play: a chamber musical (US/UK)
- Stage Kiss (US/UK)
- The Clean House (US/UK)
- The Oldest Boy: A Play in Three Ceremonies (US/UK)
- Three Sisters (Ruhl) (US/UK)