A Spiritual Journey in Theater

My latest Enchanté column

The Oldest Boy LCT 10-14 124 copy Caption

When great actors of the stage are mentioned, we often think of those in their golden years. Vanessa Redgrave, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Patti Lupone come instantly to mind.

But one of the greatest stage actors of this generation will be in her thirties for about four more years, and she could easily pass for a much younger twenty-something. Celia Keenan-Bolger blasted onto Broadway in 2005, garnering a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for her debut as Olive Ostrovsky in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. She won a Drama Desk Award and the Theatre World Award.

In the past few years, her skills and performing diversity have glowed wherever she’s set foot. In Peter and the Starcatcher (the back story to Peter Pan), she won the hearts of thousands in her role as Molly, the adventurous girl for whom Peter would fall, if he could grow up. She won the Broadway.com Audience Choice Award for the role and was again nominated for a Tony, this time for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play.

Last year, as emotionally pained Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, alongside other stage greats Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto and Brian J. Smith, Keenan-Bolger again tugged at heart strings. She took a classic role and made it her own, defining for years to come the young woman with a limp and a searing insecurity. She received another Tony nomination for her portrayal of the painfully shy girl. She won every other award for which she was nominated, including a Drama Desk Award and the Theatre World Award.

But it is her current work as “Mother” in The Oldest Boy that has taken everything to a new level and depth. The off-Broadway production at Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater is a masterpiece in its own right, with a cast and crew that do it justice. It is probably the most aesthetically beautiful production I have ever seen.

Sitting with the stage phenom at Lincoln Center Theater after a recent matinee performance feels more like a late night metaphysical chat.

In The Oldest Boy, the fourth wall, that psycho-emotional boundary between performer and audience, is more a thin veil than solid wall.

The Oldest Boy opens with Mother walking onto stage, the house lights still on, sitting in a meditative posture, facing the audience. Mother looks into the eyes of audience members, acknowledges the awkwardness of the situation and turns herself around.

“I have a different relationship to this play,” says Keenan-Bolger. “The audience is the last character of the play. I look into people’s eyes and try to connect with them. What happens couldn’t be manufactured. In this play, that’s such a huge and important part of telling the story.”

She explains that she’s gotten more comfortable with the process during the play’s run.

Celia Keenan-Bolger brings the bittersweet magic of Peter and the Starcatcher and the pain and sorrow of The Glass Menagerie to her new role as Mother in The Oldest Boy.

This, once again, is why I love off-Broadway so much. So many more risks; so much depth. It’s a two hour spiritual dance (and literal ritual dance, at times) between Tibetan Buddhist culture, with its spirituality and ritual, and Western Culture: the value of ritual; the beauty of spirit; the confusion of rationality; the agony and joy of parenthood; the pain of letting go; knowing when to let go; the foolishness of parenting theories, which change with the seasons.

A monk sums up Western love in one sentence to Mother: “You confuse attachment with love. Love is not attachment.”

I can’t say enough good things about this play. Suffice to say that when I first saw it, I went back two days later to experience it again.

Celia Keenan-Bolger breaks hearts with her acting in this one. But every actor is strong. The rituals are mesmerizing. The dance. The tea ceremonies. The excruciating joy of childbirth. The excruciating pain of letting go. The risk of feeling. Simply overwhelming.

“It’s a beautiful new play by Sarah Ruhl about a woman, who lives in the United States, married to a man from Nepal,” says Keenan-Bolger.”They have a three-year-old toddler, Tenzin. Her husband is Buddhist, and she is interested in Buddhism as well. Two monks come to her house and say that they believe that her child is the reincarnation of a High Lama, a teacher. They want to take him back to India to educate him. She has to decide if this is even a legitimate claim and then has to come to terms with the decision of letting her child be taken away and educated as a Buddhist.”

Given the emotional depth of this production, I asked Celia what she’s learned about herself.

“I think what I learned about myself.” She pauses. “I haven’t totally answered this before. I think…” She pauses again. She’s thinking this one through.

“I do different things, like a play’s revival or a musical and that fulfills me.” She pauses again. Silence. She leans back and looks upward, then makes eye contact again.

“From the many roles I’ve had before, I’ve taken bits and pieces of things I’ve learned and put it all together in this one,” she says. “This was the first time I was on stage for the entire show. It felt like I had so many tools to do that. I realize how many amazing actors and actresses and directors I’ve learned from. As you work on stage, you really are building a body of work. Everything you do influences the next work you do.”

Celia Keenan-Bolger grew up in Detroit and has been performing since childhood. Her younger brother (Andrew) and sister (Maggie) are also theater professionals.

“I was the oldest of three and have loved theatre since I was very young,” she says. “I went to a community theater production of Sound of Music in Detroit and fell in love with it. I always had a sort of talkative precocious side. And I have amazing parents. My mother is a teacher and dad is an urban planner. They had no stake in our being in theater. They really let us be our own people. It’s like what this play addresses. I probably talked a lot and got up from the dinner table to tell stories. That was embraced by my family and not shut down.”

She started performing in children’s theater at a young age.

“I never really stopped,” she says.

She attended a performing arts school in Detroit and then attended the University of Michigan for musical theater.

“There is something amazing about theater,” she says. “It’s hard to master it. I’ve been lucky enough to play a lot of different types of characters.”

The Oldest Boy is about attachment, love and letting go. It’s also a spiritual journey.

“I think when I first read this play many months ago, I had a very emotional reaction to it. It’s a strange ephemeral experience in this play. I dig deeper night after night. The writing and direction help to sustain an emotional response. I’m very curious about the questions this play is asking. They are very difficult to grapple with. The play has taken care of me. It’s not just about giving away your three year old. We all have things to let go of.”

In her preparation for her role, Keenan-Bolger spent time at a Buddhist retreat in upstate New York.
“They said something so profound. True love is wanting what is best for someone else. That’s not how we’re conditioned to see love.”

She explains that at recent student matinees of The Oldest Boy she thought it might be at a level that was too adult in orientation.

“There are so many ways to keep our brains occupied with screens and you don’t do interesting things with other people,” she says. “Theater is one of the few places where we all come together and have this shared experience. I really felt it at the student matinees. I thought it was a pretty adult play for Grade 8 and high school students, but their response has been so incredibly moving to me. I wonder if it just feels good to be in a space with a bunch of other people and get to talk about it when it’s over. Today, we are not called on to do that very often. I love going to a theater. I always have. I’m not religious and have never gone to church, but I think theater is like a religious experience. It’s that place where you watch people fail and overcome insurmountable odds. You also have this religious and ritual experience of doing something over and over again. You don’t have that in any other part of life.”

I asked her how she was going to say goodbye to such a masterpiece of a production.

“It always happens; you get the post-show blues,” she says. “Saying goodbye is done in such a beautiful way in this play itself. There’s so much to talk about around attachment in this play, it gives me a different perspective on leaving it. You can really care about something and let it go. We invest a lot of our lives in something and then have to deal with it being over. The play is about learning to love something and not hold onto it.”

It brings to mind one of Keenan-Bolger’s lines as Molly in the last scene of Peter and the Starcatcher, where she’s explaining goodbyes to Peter Pan: “It’s supposed to hurt. That’s how you know it meant something.”
What’s next?

“I’m working on a great piece by Ethan Lipton,” she says. “I saw his No Place To Go and thought I would give anything to work with him. He’s writing a new piece, and I actually get to do something with my husband (actor/producer John Ellison Conlee). We don’t get to work together, and now we are. It’s Ethan’s new play called Tumacho. It’s a comedy and it’s wacky. It’s very different from [The Oldest Boy]. We’ve been doing readings and workshopping it.”

She pauses again. Her eyes widen and the corners of her lips reach upward. “And we also get to go on vacation soon. We’re going to go to Turks and Caicos.”

Sounds like she’s returning to Neverland.

Keep your eyes open for Celia Keenan-Bolger. Don’t miss any chance to see her perform.

The Oldest Boy closes on December 28, and it is worth every effort you can put into getting to Lincoln Center Theater in New York to see it.

For tickets to The Oldest Boy, go to http://www.lct.org.

Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin

About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
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