Meetup #26: Sarah Ruhl’s Late: A Cowboy Song


Works by Women San Francisco kicked off 2015 with our 26th MeetupLate: A Cowboy Song produced by Custom Made Theater. I fondly remember reading this play when I was Literary Manager at Playwrights Foundation back in the early aughts, and being thrilled to discover an amazing emerging writer called Sarah Ruhl!

From Custom Made Theater: “Sarah Ruhl’s Late: A Cowboy Song is for all the cowboys of heart and mind, who ride outside the city limits of convention. Mary (Maria Leigh), always late and always married, meets a lady cowboy (Lauren Preston) outside the city limits of Pittsburgh who teaches her how to ride a horse. Mary’s husband, Crick (Brian Martin), buys a painting with the last of their savings. Mary and Crick have a baby, but they can’t decide on the baby’s name, or the baby’s gender. Sarah Ruhl’s witty, poetic and subtle play is a portrait of three souls in collision.”

cowboy song

This production was directed by Ariel Craft (Custom Made Assistant Artistic Director) and features actors Maria Leigh and Lauren Preston. Other women working on the production include: Cat Howser (stage manager), Liz Ryder (score/sound), Brooke Jennings (costumes), and Leah S. Abrams (Custom Made Executive Director).

From Rob Hurwitt’s SF Chronicle review: “at its heart is one woman’s serious, infectiously murky striving for clarity and a kind of fulfillment that can’t help but command engagement.”

If you were part of the Meetup or saw the play on your own, please share your perspective!

Images courtesy Custom Made Theater. Photo by Jay Yamada.


10 responses to “Meetup #26: Sarah Ruhl’s Late: A Cowboy Song

  1. I’m very thrilled that Custom Made chose this early and understaged Sarah Ruhl for their season. A treat to see it brought to stage. I thought the space was well used for the different locations needed for the story. Lauren Preston’s singing was a delightful addition and Maria Leigh’s Mary was an excellent Sarah Ruhl heroine – confusion, longing, and my favorite sequence Ariel Craft’s staging, when Crick dragged her through holiday after holiday after holiday.

    • I echo your praise for Ariel Craft’s smart staging in a tight space, and the actors’ commitment to living fully inside this plaintive tale of a woman discovering her true nature. I also want to acknowledge Erik LaDue’s set (I never got tired of gazing at the sunset sky horizon and the silhouette sawhorse equine was cleverly executed), and Maria Leigh’s passionate rendition of a clear soup recipe (Julia Childs is blushing in heaven!) While the play unfolds slowly, I’m still a fan. There is something about both the pacing and the layering of elements that feels distinctly female to me.

  2. A conversation at our post show hangout was about Crick and Mary’s transgender baby – how that idea came up and then wasn’t addressed to our satisfaction – as part of that convo I said I’d look up the year the play was written – Wikipedia says 2003.

  3. It was so lovely to see all the WWSF folk out in force for last night’s performance, and lovely to see this play staged! I, too, knew it from reading it a while back, once Sarah Ruhl had had a couple hits and was starting to be produced more and more frequently. Both in reading and also onstage, I loved the elements that seem just this side of fantastical — the baby going without a name for ages, or Mary riding up to her door on a horse. Ruhl is my kind of playwright, always finding a gorgeous image that carries you to the heart of pathos with a lot of humor.

    I also remember from reading that the two female characters I could relate to much more than Crick. He’s not without complexity, but I find his character’s manipulations and egotism can be extremely grating without a tremendous charisma and allure to make him appealing. His sensitive side saves him — a little — but overall he presents an obstacle that strikes me as a little too obvious: it’s clear that Mary needs to be free of him, and hard to relate to why she takes so long.

    This production wasn’t able to entirely overcome that challenge in the script, and I think it is that challenge — Crick as somewhat ‘easy’ dramatic obstacle — that prompts me to yearn for more plot substance from Blue. Both the fact of her existence as a child (with all the resulting needs, complexities, etc) and her indeterminate gender. Of course, giving the baby’s gender more weight would make the play a different piece, and I’m not sure that’s necessary.

    I love that as in most of Ruhl’s work, we really see the play from the perspective of the primary female character (Mary). This play has always given me the feeling that the perspective is a very young one with a clear sense of right and wrong. Unfortunately, it’s accompanied by the feeling that the perspective is a little easy: it’s one that speaks better to my 20-year-old self than the self that has seen more of life. I’d love to know what others thank about that aspect of the script, and the character of Crick.

    There were moments of this production that did exactly that thing I love about Ruhl — a quick, effective, image that can be startlingly humorous, heartbreaking, or both — like that onslaught of holidays that Valerie mentioned. There were quite a few gorgeous, fleeting moments (more gorgeous because they were so fleeting) between Maria Leigh as Mary and Lauren Preston as Red; Maria and director Ariel Craft were also able to find a ton of delicious solo moments — both in the script and transitions between scenes — for Mary. (Full disclosure, I’m a huge Maria Leigh fan and jump at every chance I have to work or hang out with her!)

    I wanted to know more about the lovely songs that Red sings — I think they were composed by Liz Ryder, CMTC’s fantastic sound designer who I had the pleasure of working alongside on Slaughterhouse Five. I would have loved to read about the compositions a little in the program, and/or to see the lyrics printed, in part because they were a bit difficult to understand live. I really enjoyed the music and Lauren’s voice is gorgeous. When she and Maria got to sing together for a moment it was heavenly.

    • I love your nuanced interpretation of the plays triumphs and flaws. To me, the play feels like a kind of simmering soup that may have nourished Ruhl’s future imagination, but isn’t quite filling enough on its own. I agree that the character of Crick is a bit of a weak link, but in a way, so is Red (albeit more appealing). She is the positive pole and Crick is the negative pole. I think Mary is the only one who really transforms.

    • Hi, this is Brian, Custom Made’s AD chiming in for a sec. First, thanks everyone for all the thoughts on the play, just lovely! I wanted to also say yes Liz Ryder, our resident composer, wrote original music for Sarah Ruhl’s lyrics (that’s also her playing on the backing tracks.)

      Liz is also a fantastic singer/songwriter and you can hear more of her work at, and can buy her albums on iTunes. I’m a huge fan 🙂

  4. Thanks to Valerie and Christine for arranging this meetup! The acting was terrific. I think the transgender nature of the baby in part created a “fortunate” ending — Red will be one of hir father/mother figures, bringing up Blue as “fearless” and okay with gender ambiguity. Not at all sure this particular situation (husband with bat who knows where they live) can have a happy ending, however.

    It became apparent early to me that the arc of the story was escalating violence/control on the part of Crick, and growing awareness of this/resistance on the part of Mary. So, as an audience member, and a woman, I was just sitting there waiting with dread. This is not my favorite audience experience.

    I also felt Red was underdeveloped as a character. In a way, she seemed like a fantasy. I wonder if we are supposed to be seeing Red only through Mary’s eyes, and if so, what Red is really like.

    Again, thanks so much for arranging this! Always a treat.

    • So glad to have you with us Patricia. I am also not a fan of that dread/discomfort feeling I get with a plot arc of this nature.

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