In 2008, New Yorker magazine interviewed playwright Sarah Ruhl about her dark comedy, "Dead Man's Cell Phone." The play explores the insidious effects of technology on human communication and relationships.
"We're less connected to the present. No one is where they are. There's absolutely no reason to talk to a stranger anymore-you connect to people you already know. But how well do you know them? Because you never see them-you just talk to them. I find that terrifying," Ruhl said.
Heidelberg University Theatre is to present Ruhl's play at 8 p.m. today through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in Gundlach Theatre on the Heidelberg campus.
PHOTO BY ROB LEDWEDGE
Jean (Erin Crenshaw, left) meets Mrs. Gottlieb (Dakota Thorn) in Heidelberg University’s “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.”
Many human beings can identify with a ringing cell phone interrupting the routine in a public place, especially when it continues without being answered or silenced. That kind of scenario serves as the opening scene of "Cell Phone." Erin Crenshaw is cast as the lead character Jean, who is trying to eat a bowl of soup in a cafe. When a cell phone rings incessantly, she becomes impatient with its owner, who remains perfectly still at another table.
No one else seems to be around, so Jean approaches him, answers the phone and takes a message.
When a second call comes in, she answers and taps his shoulder and discovers he is dead, bolt upright in his chair. In shock, she tells the caller, "He can't come to the phone right now."
Then, she calls 911 to report his death, wonders aloud why he died, and stays with him until help arrives.
On some level, accepting his calls has formed a connection between Jean and the dead man. She takes the phone with her in an effort to keep him alive somehow.
As calls keep coming, Jean learns the man is Gordon Gottlieb. He has a wife, Hermie (Stacey Hartley), a mistress (Marina Rickley), an estranged mother (Dakota Thorn) and a brother, Dwight (Matt Bokros), who has lived in Gordon's shadow.
Gordon also has a mysterious occupation Jean does not uncover right away, but she suspects it is subversive or illegal. She convinces herself she needs to keep the phone to inform callers of Gordon's death. The calls continue and arouse her concern as more parts of his unhappy life are revealed.
In an effort to make Gordon seem more respectable, Jean reinvents and embellishes details she has learned about him to comfort his significant others.
Fiction spills out of her at dinner with Mrs. Gottlieb, Hermie and Dwight. A vegetarian, Jean wants to be polite, but the steak dinner Mrs. G. is serving and the sight of Gordon's cremation urn at the table stifle her appetite and the conversation. The sensitive Dwight senses her predicament and takes her out to get a salad.
Jean and Dwight experience a spark of romance as he shares a few family stories and describes his work in a paper goods shop. They love the permanence of the written word and react negatively to ethereal electronic communication that come and go so easily.
Jean wonders how some people can curse and rant publicly about their personal affairs in public places, just because cell phones make it easy to do so. She says the "voices in the air" on Gordon's phone give the illusion he is still alive.
When Dwight tries to kiss Jean, Gordon's phone sounds again. She feels compelled to answer, even though a living, breathing man is right there trying to show her affection.
As Act II opens, the audience is returned to the cafe on the day Gordon died. The deceased (Jordan Keller) addresses the audience to describe his final hours and to divulge his work of buying and selling human organs. In a detached tone, he speaks of trying to "get the right parts in the right bodies." His job is more about money than about helping people.
Jean is dragged into Gordon's sordid business by (what else?) a phone call demanding delivery of a kidney to South Africa. To possibly prevent another death, Jean makes the trip and offers to give her kidney "out of love," not for payment. The stranger rejects the offer and leaves Jean laying on the floor, unconscious.
Soon, Gordon appears, wakes her and says she must love him or she wouldn't have lied on his behalf. A chorus of cell phone conversations fills the air, as a parade of cell phone users with umbrellas appears on the stage for a few moments before disappearing.
The audience is led to believe Jean has died. She tries to call Dwight to profess her love, knowing she should have done it sooner. "You have to pick it up," she moans in desperation, slumping to the floor.
As the light changes, Dwight is there welcoming her back from South Africa. Much has changed while she was away, but everyone somehow is adjusting to life without Gordon.
Jean and Dwight resolve to find ways to make their relationship a lasting one.
This simplistic summary cannot do justice to this curious comedy. Audience members inevitably will find themselves questioning the brevity of life and the complexity of relationships, with or without technology. The script also makes jabs at religion and the nature of an afterlife.
Crenshaw and Thorn put out an array of emotions for their demanding roles, and the ensemble cast works well together to create dramatic tension.
For this production, director Chris Tucci has constructed a stage upon the stage so viewers are in close proximity to the actors. He also has employed special lighting and sound effects to enhance the changing moods of the characters. Glass panels outlined by lights have been placed on the floor, which is painted to resemble a huge circuit board.
The subject matter and language in "Dead Man's Cell Phone" are intended for mature audiences only.
Ticket prices for this contemporary play are "pay what you can" to support the theater department.
For ticket information, call the box office at (419) 448-2305.