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Theatrically Speaking

Roslyn and Dallas Roberts in "Scenes from a Marriage"

Leading Lady Roslyn Ruff

Roslyn Ruff is a radiant actress. She recently starred in the widely praised and highly innovative production of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, staged by Dutch director Ivo Van Hove in New York. Before that, she appeared on Broadway as Coretta Scott King in the Tony Award winning All the Way, starring Brian Cranston as Lyndon Johnson; and as Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet starring Orlando Bloom. She is the current go-to leading lady for the work of August Wilson in New York, having starred in The Piano Lesson and in Seven Guitars. (She was also the standby for Viola Davis in the Broadway production of Wilson’s Fences starring Denzel Washington). In film and on television she has appeared in Life During Wartime, SALT, Rachel Getting Married, Masters of Sex, The Big C, A Gifted Man, and The Help.

And she’s from Buffalo!

Back in 1999, Roslyn received an Artie Award for her performance in James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner at Ujima Theater Company before heading off for the Harvard acting program. She became a member of the prestigious Acting Company, which has launched the careers of such notable actors as Kevin Kline, Rainn Wilson, Patti LuPone, David Schramm, David Ogden Stiers, Frances Conroy, Jeffrey Wright, Harriet Harris, Hamish Linklater, Keith David, and Buffalo’s Jesse L. Martin. After that, it’s been one prominent role after another.

It was thrilling to see her in Scenes from a Marriage, which tells the story of a couple from an early point in their marriage, through to the aftermath of their divorce. The innovation of the Van Hove production, originally staged in Amsterdam, is that three different pairs of actors play the couple. The three scenes of Act I, involving the young couple, the struggling couple, and the divorcing couple, are performed in adjacent rooms—simultaneously. While you are hearing one scene, you are overhearing the other two in the nearby rooms. Audience members are given color coded wrist bands which correspond to one of playing spaces, and when a scene ends, patrons are invited to get up and move to the next room.

Luckily I was assigned to see the divorcing couple first, which meant I lead up to the scene featuring Roslyn and actor Dallas Roberts as Marianne and Johan 2, the middle couple. She gave a performance of remarkable focus and intensity that was widely praised by New York critics. In this scene she is frustrated in her efforts to coax the husband into reenergizing a marriage that has clearly lost its passion. We also see her character counseling a woman who is seeking a divorce from her own husband, because her marriage is loveless. Ruff is an actor who can speak volumes even in silence, with every darting of her eyes or tightening of her lips, her meanings are a model of clarity and precision.

Ruff appearing in "The Help"

In the second act, the partitions between the rooms were removed and the three couples appeared in the same space, often speaking the same words simultaneously, consecutively, or overlapping. The effect of hearing the same words spoken by the characters from the perspective of different periods of their marriage was remarkable and provided haunting insights. After a bruising and highly physical fight that sends actors rolling across the floor and clawing at each other’s faces, it was moving to hear each actress say that the fight should have happened long ago. “Long ago” takes on a different meaning, the older we get.

Through it all, my eye was drawn to the quiet power of Roslyn’s performance. She is an incandescent actress—light seems to emanate from her. I also found the regal dignity of her Lady Capulet, and the implacable resolve of her performance in The Piano Lesson to be hypnotizing. Indeed, Charles Isherwood of the New York Times praised the latter performance for its “captivating, quiet authority,” which he called “one of the finest performances I’ve seen in an August Wilson play.”

Expect to see the name Roslyn Ruff more and more and more in the years ahead, and know that this astonishingly talented woman comes from Buffalo.

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