For a change, Detroit's Celia Keenan-Bolger is acting her age. In her profession – acting – that can be a mixed blessing. But for now it works for her.
Keenan-Bolger may be the most youthful-looking 36-year-old in the current milieu of Broadway and off-Broadway. In most of her roles, she's played teenagers or women in their early 20s. The University of Michigan graduate has three Tony nominations in the last decade.
But in "The Oldest Boy" – currently at the Mitzi E. Newhouse theater in Lincoln Center – Keenan-Bolger plays the 30-ish American mother of a three-year-old son.
And he's not a typical American boy. His father is of Tibetan ancestry. Unexpectedly, two Buddhist monks arrive to tell the parents their son is the reincarnation of a great teacher, a lama. They wish to take him to a monastery in India.
The boy (played by a puppet with a human voice behind it) forces the issue by conversing at a high level with the monks, asking spiritual and philosophical questions, recognizing artifacts from the dead lama and telling his folks he needs to leave.
Keenan-Bolger reflected on this philosophical tension.
"When you have a child, is it your child or is it the world's child?" Keenan-Bolger said. "That was something I had never entertained before."
In researching Buddhism, she said she discovered "true love means doing what is best for someone else. That is really loving someone. Even if it's extraordinarily painful."
In the play, written by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Rebecca Taichman, the parents surrender the baby and conceive another child. The role coincides with an important time in Kennan-Bolger's life.
In recent months, she has said that she and her husband, the actor John Ellison Conlee, hope to have a baby after four years of marriage.
Keenan-Bolger also comes to her current role well-prepared for cross-cultural issues and religious themes. She grew up in a white family in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood on the Detroit River east of Belle Isle after it became mostly African-American.
Her extended family was Catholic and, for generations, pillars of a parish called St. Martin of Tours (no, not St. Martin de Porres; that was on the West Side). But Keenan-Bolger drifted away from Catholicism while maintaining her spirituality and social conscience.
Her aunt (her deceased late mother's twin sister) lives six months a year on an ashram in India.
"She's very big into meditation," Keenan-Bolger said. "She was the first person I knew who mediated, way back before all these studies came out that said our brains do really well if we spend 10 minutes every day trying to clear our heads."
The play opens with Keenan-Bolger's character meditating. As for cross-cultural empathy, Keenan-Bolger's character (never named) tries, successfully, to harmonize spiritually with the Tibetan Buddhists, just as Keenan-Bolger learned how to grow up white in a black environment in Detroit.
Her lineage is one of social activism. Her parents were union organizers. Her grandparents tried to hold Jefferson-Chalmers together as a racially integrated neighborhood after the 1967 Riot and Rebellion.
In Keenan-Bolger's current Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a New York police officer in the strangulation-aided death of Eric Garner, "I marched down 10th Ave. with many others," Keenan-Bolger said. "I do think black lives matter. I feel a kind of rage and a sort of hope over what's happening."
She said she's been stunned by reaction to several recent killings of young black men by white cops. On Facebook, she finds her black friends in Detroit "are living in complete fear" that their sons will die young.
Among her white friends, she said, "certain ones turned out to be racists."
It's given her the germ of a play idea. "There is a way to illuminate this subject in a way that that has not necessarily been represented," she said.
In the meantime, she and her husband – who have never worked together – hope to change that soon in a developing play called "Tu Macho," which Keenan-Bolger called "a sort of hilarious Western goofball comedy."
Before that, they'll visit friends and family in the Detroit area over the holidays. Although her current play is probably not for everyone, the reviews have been particularly strong for this rising lead actress.
The New York Times wrote: "With her bright, searching eyes, Ms. Keenan-Bolger – a Tony award nominee this year for 'The Glass Menagerie' – brings a sense of churning conflict to her performance."
The modern-style theater is an elegant and intimate bowl with perfect acoustics and sight lines – a nice space for a challenging, intelligent show. — mt
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