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THEATER REVIEW: "The Oldest Boy"

What would you say if two Tibetan monks showed up on your doorstep, told you your two-year-old son had been selected as the next Lama, and asked to take him to India for training?

An intercultural couple known only as Mother (Amanda Sitton) and Father (Napoleon Tavale) are faced with this decision in Sarah Ruhl’s “The Oldest Boy,” playing through Dec. 6 at San Diego Repertory Theatre. Sam Woodhouse directs.

I call it “Buddhism 101” because in addition to pondering the nature of the mother/child bond, the audience gets a near-total immersion experience in this eastern philosophy, which includes some lovely Tibetan music and dance (by Joyce Lai and Janissa Saracino, choreographed by Qi Zhang Holtzman). Some of the actors’ lines are even in Tibetan.

Mother is no stranger to Buddhist thought – and is in fact “trying to meditate” when the play opens – but that doesn’t make the request any easier to deal with. She lives in an unnamed American city, with her Tibetan husband, who owns a restaurant.

The question isn’t really whether son Tenzin will go to India. It’s whether or how mom will survive this enforced “non-attachment” (she’s been reading a book about “attachment parenting”).

Playwright Ruhl (whose fine play “In The Next Room, Or The Vibrator Play” played the Rep a few years ago) is at her best skewering human foibles and institutions. Fear not, she doesn’t take on Buddhism. But she’s made Mother a literature professor, and the academic establishment comes in for some well-deserved (and quite funny) barbs.

The Rep’s tech team has created a beautiful background for the piece, with some lovely projections by Joe Huppert and a charming Bunraku-style puppet for Tenzin, wonderfully manipulated by Tsering Dorjee Bawa, who also plays several roles.

Sitton is excellent here, especially at defining in her character the east-west philosophical dichotomy in world view. She’s a western mom who wants her baby with her; it’s not in her culture or her nature to take easily to Father’s more expansive attitude: “You brought him into the world. Now he is the world’s child...try not to be so small.”

Ruhl has stated that the play is about the mother/child bond, but for my money the play’s strength lies in the depiction of this philosophical contrast. Either way, it’s an interesting play, though not Ruhl’s best.

The details

“The Oldest Boy” plays through December 6, 2015 at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or www.sdrep.org