Theatre ReviewsTom Williams

Late: a cowboy song

By Sarah Ruhl

Late: a cowboy song
Late: a cowboy song

Directed by Jessica Thebus

Produced by Piven Theatre Workshop

At the Noyes Cultural Center, Evanston

Ambiguity propels Sarah Ruhl’s provocative drama

I’m not sure what to make of Sarah Ruhl’s Late: a cowboy song. It is a perplexedly vague three person drama that contains multi-layered themes and meaning. I guess?

Late: a cowboy song

This strange play features a couple of child-like characters totally isolated from reality yet seeming in love since the second grade. Mary (Polly Noonan) is the dim-witted, almost retarded woman who appears to both be in love and in fear of her lover, Crick (Lawrence Grimm). He is a couch potato infatuated by holidays and  Frank Capara films.  He is controlling and dependent on Mary. Their world is simple place where Mary is the doting women and Crick is the household’s leader.

Late: a cowboy song

Their world is changed by two events: Mary meets an old school mate, Red (Kelli Simpkins) – an independent, cowgirl who sports a ten-gallon cowboy hat, sings off key cowboys songs and breaks horses in suburban Pittsburgh.  With each visit with Red, Mary moves closer to independence from Crick and apparently she is becoming emotionally attached and possibly in love with Red.

Late: a cowboy song

The second overlaying event is Mary’s pregnancy that necessitates marrying Crick and insisting that he work. Crick becomes an art museum guard. Mary’s baby is born with both male and female genitalia. The doctors make the child a female.  She never tells Crick about that. Tension grows between Crick and Mary as Mary spends more time with Red. Mary learns how to ride horses-something that she has feared.

One of the strange devices playwright Ruhl uses here is having Kelli Simpkins sing parts of a hooky cowboy song deliberately off-key as a sort of Greek chorus commenting on the previous scene. I found that irritating and unnecessary.

The play’s ambiguity and the simple-minded portrait of Mary by Polly Noonan left me wondering is she just learning how to be an adult or is she just learning that she is really a lesbian? Red is so butch that gender and sexual identity sure steams between the two women. Yet we never see them kiss. We also see Crick changing from a macho guy into a more effeminate character.

To me, the play seems underwritten and much to vague yet it suggests that a woman’s education can be a life changing experience. This play left me scratching my head. I’m still not sure what it is about? Polly Noonan’s performance is haunting.

Somewhat Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

At the Noyes Cultural Center, 927 Noyes Street, Evanston, IL, call 847-866-8049,, tickets $25, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2:30 pm, running time is 1 hour 45 minutes with intermission.

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