Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2013, 11:00 am

A Q-C premiere for deeply personal Ruhl play

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By Jonathan Turner,

Molly Conrad and Cody Johnson are featured in "Eurydice" this weekend at the Galvin Fine Arts Center, St. Ambrose University, Davenport.
Playwright Sarah Ruhl

Sarah Ruhl, one of the most celebrated and honored playwrights of her generation, has had her works performed around the world. But the 39-year-old New Yorker -- whose parents went to high school in Davenport -- has never had a play done here.

That changes this weekend when St. Ambrose University presents"Eurydice," Ms. Ruhl's 2003 meditation on memory, loss and love.

Based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus from the viewpoint of the heroine (Eurydice), the timeless story walks a line between heartbreaking tragedy and whimsical comedy, according to director Dan Rairdin-Hale. The play takes its audience on an emotional journey where lovers are separated, characters of the underworld interact, and loved ones who have died are reunited.

"It's just so beautiful. It's poignant and poetic," Mr. Rairdin-Hale recently said. "It teaches us to cherish every moment. I think it speaks on many levels. I love the metaphor of the story -- it speaks on many levels. Not just a loss through death, but if you have aging parents, various forms of dementia, losing your memories."

A 2006 New York Times review called "Eurydice" a "devastatingly lovely -- and just plain devastating -- theatrical gloss on the Orpheus myth..." The new version has "the subliminal potency of music, the head-scratching surprise of a modernist poem and the cockeyed allure of a surrealist painting," Charles Isherwood wrote.

Twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Ms. Ruhl in 2006 won a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation fellowship (commonly known as a "genius grant"), then calling her "a fresh, compelling and versatile playwright" who in the sparse, contemporary "Eurydice" captures "the pain of loss, the lessening of pain over time and the necessity of forgetting."

Two years after her "In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)" was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play, Ms. Ruhl beat out British competition to earn the top play prize at the Theatre Awards U.K. 2012.

Her play "Stage Kiss" premiered to raves in 2011 at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, which commissioned it, and her last play -- "Dear Elizabeth" opened last fall at Yale, chronicling the 30-year friendship between two of the most famous poets of the 20th century: Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

Ms. Ruhl's plays have been produced in London, Germany, Australia, Canada and Israel, and have been translated into Polish, Russian, Spanish, Norwegian, Korean, German and Arabic. Originally from Chicago, she received her M.F.A. from Brown University.

Ms. Ruhl's father Patrick (a Davenport Central High alum) met her mother, Kathy Kehoe Ruhl, at an Outing Club ball the summer before he started at Amherst and she (an Assumption grad) at Smith in Massachusetts. Sarah regularly came back to visit grandparents in Davenport during holidays and some summers, and she still has family in the Quad-Cities.

"Eurydice" was written in tribute to her late father, who died of bone cancer in 1994 at age 54. In the play, Eurydice's father (who is not in the original Greek story) is very important, Mr. Rairdin-Hale said. "He basically teaches his daughter how to remember, how to live again," he said. "They rekindle that lost relationship; it's a great relationship.It's so sad in those final moments, we lose him again and we lose her again."

In the myth, Eurydice dies soon after she weds Orpheus. The Greek gods gave him a chance to rescue her from the underworld, only if he does without looking back at her.

In Ms. Ruhl's version, she meets her father in the underworld, who tells Eurydice about her past since she lost her memory. Orpheus arrives to save her and Eurydice is faced with the decision to stay with her father or go back with her husband.

"I've always loved the myth, and always wondered about Eurydice's point of view, since so many artists have gone back to the myth, but usually from Orpheus' point of view," Ms. Ruhl said in a recent e-mail. "Watching the play over and over again over the years was like watching a funeral for my father over and over again. By the last time I saw the play, at Victory Gardens in Chicago, I felt I was, in a way, through a period of mourning."

Her father and Eurydice's (in her telling) were both "mild-mannered, and nurturing, with a gentle wit. They both provided shelter for their daughters," Ms. Ruhl said. "I think my dad had a kind of ordinary sweetness that often gets overlooked in our more operatic tragedies. I wanted to put his everydayness -- which to me is a kind of heroism -- inside a Greek myth."

Her father instilled a love of language in her, teaching her a new word over pancakes every Saturday morning in Chicago.

"And we'd philosophize. He used to give me poetry -- E.E. Cummings, Dylan Thomas -- those were two of his favorites," Ms. Ruhl (herself the mother of a 6-year-old girl and 3-year-old twins) said. "He was playful with language, and always supported my writing."

The inspiration for Eurydice's father came through in Mr. Ruhl's illness as well, she said. "He wasn't angry, and he was rarely cranky. He always was interested in the people around him -- the nurses and doctors, friends and family who were visiting him at the hospital," Ms. Ruhl said. "He seemed to know that his time was limited, and wanted to be his best self. He wanted to buoy up others with his sense of humor. He had one of the most graceful deaths I can imagine."

"I miss his sense of humor, his intelligence, his never taking things too seriously," she said. "He was a person who had great unconditional love for his family."

The play uses water (as a source of life) totell the story, and the set is full of special effects, including rain. "This production lends itself to working with strong conceptualization and collaboration, and having lots of water on stage is always a significant but exciting challenge," set designer Kristofer Eitrheim said.

"It should be a visual treat," said Mr. Rairdin-Hale, who added it's "exciting and terrifying" to know that Ms. Ruhl's family and friends will be in the audience this weekend. "I want to do it justice. I'm excited to know they might be coming to see it. It's so beautiful, I don't want to mess it up," he said.

In her e-mail, Ms. Ruhl said she has a lot of affection for Davenport, but won't be able to visit for the production. "I would love to come out, but I'm teaching at Yale School of Drama this semester, and between that and 3 young children who seem constantly to have ear infections this time of year, it's hard to get away from home."

Nancy Hayes, an SAU English professor who grew up in the same McClellan Heights neighborhood with Ms. Ruhl's uncle Joe (who teaches business at SAU), is excited to see the play.

"It really is a big deal," she said of Ms. Ruhl's success. "The Quad-Citiescan be so proud of her."

If you go

-- What: Sarah Ruhl's "Eurydice"
-- When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday.
-- Where: Galvin Fine Arts Center (N. Gaines and W. High streets), St. Ambrose University, Davenport.
-- Tickets: $11 for adults, $9 faculty/staff/alumni/senior citizens, $7 non-SAU students and SAU students are free with a current valid student ID. 563-333-6251,