Home, home, on the range… in Pennsylvania, a woman reacquaints herself with a cowboy, has a child, and suffers relationship difficulties in Sarah Ruhl’s Late: A Cowboy Song. The simplicity of the dialogue is deceiving. The play challenges conceptions of marriage and sexuality, and leaves the audience wondering just what they may have missed during years of complacency.
Mary and Crick met in second grade. Now married, their marriage is as sophisticated as Crick. Crick may remind readers of their pubescent offspring, combining sexual desire with a toddler’s tendency to touch what isn’t theirs. When he asks Mary for money, he doesn’t listen when she says she doesn’t have any. He proceeds to needle until she surrenders what little she does. What does he do with the money? One hint: it isn’t to buy her a ring.
If this were a play that only featured this dysfunctional relationship, I wouldn’t have been able to finish it. I didn’t want to take the risk that Mary wouldn’t leave the man she had been with since childhood… the man who had threatened to hit her, taken her money, violated her privacy, and refused to respect her basic desires or needs.
Fortunately, aside from language and artistic liberties the designers could take with set, lights, and music, the play has a redeeming characteristic: cowboys.
More specifically, one cowboy. Her name is Red, a friend of Mary’s from high school. While Red is undeniably a woman, she is equally undeniably a cowboy. Reading the text, I enjoyed the license Ruhl allowed for both actors and designers, regarding Red’s character. Songs are written into the text, as well as mentions of a horse. How these notes are utilized is up to directors.
Red is a breath of freedom in Mary’s life. Crick offers so much control, over everything from the name of their baby to her finances and liberty to come and go, that her friendship with Red becomes integral for her happiness. Red offers her the kind of companionship that she had been hoping for with Crick. While Crick refuses to accept Mary’s name for their baby and provides his own, Red offers laughter and discussion. Crick will interrupt arguments to demand sex; Red offers to teach Mary how to ride.
The ideas explored in Late are not new to Ruhl. Her plays, which include In the Next Room, the Vibrator Play and Eurydice, subtly immerse audiences in contemporary issues. Only once we are deep below the surface do we look up and realize, oh. The slights against women and non-heterosexual relationships, or those who do not confine themselves to gender normalities, have expanded to an ocean of accepted offenses in the present day. While her platform could be New York at the dawn of the electrical age or Pennsylvania in the present age, Ruhl challenges preconceptions that are still prevalent in today’s society.
Any difficulties that may have risen from reading the text stem from the reality of the piece. A cowboy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is not difficult to believe when reading Ruhl’s work. Crick and Mary’s relationship is perhaps a warning. It left this reader wondering what we will endure when we have grown used to it.
Ruhl’s writing is good, but perhaps more important, it is relevant. Whether it is Late, or any of her other plays, a production should not be missed.