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JOINING THE CONVERSATION: ‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’ successfully delves into the innate nature of humanity

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The issues in “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” both overt in the sense of technology and less obvious, are strikingly relevant in our modern society. The play doesn’t preach one answer over another, but instead invites the audience to join the conversation.

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Big Dawg Theatre Co. winds up their busy and successful summer with the intriguing “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Melissa Stanley, the cast embraces the ridiculous but very poignant nature of the script.

deadmanThe premise is intriguing and full of potential: Jean (Vanessa Welch) is sitting in a café, enjoying a bowl of soup, when the cellphone of a gentleman at the table begins to ring. He does not answer it. It rings incessantly, demandingly. Gordon (Alex Wharff) still does not answer it. Apparently, he is dead. But Jean answers the phone—actually, she keeps answering it over the next few days, and the calls bring her to Gordon’s mistress (Amanda Young), his wife (Rhoda Jane Gary), his mother (Lori Winner), and his much-maligned and unappreciated younger brother, Dwight (Anthony Corvino).

Ruhl unfolds the world of Gordon with such skill that we, the audience, are just as curious as Jean. Though, we have few desires and expectations compared to her. Welch is a bundle (or as Gordon’s mother refers to her “a small casserole”) of curiosity and expectations about Gordon’s life. She so desperately wants him to be a good and wonderful person, so she sets about recreating him in that image through a powerful communication tool: his cellphone. But humans, innately, are not good people—despite the fact we believe we are.

Ruhl’s script does a wonderful job of raising questions about connection and disconnection in the age of technology. The wonderful contrast is the amazing nonverbal communication the entire cast—Welch especially—reveals. The point that this ephemeral, fleeting, very physical experience of live theatre is the medium to have this conversation is perhaps the best wake-up call Ruhl employees.

Welch is really a wonderful Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole of Gordon’s life: Is it that her own life is empty? We learn so little about her, we assume it must be. But the innate goodness she believes in, and therefore uses as her lodestar, moves her through the world. Welch is a wonderful actress, and I wish I had more opportunities to see her onstage. This part is tailor-made for her expressive face and determined spirit. Finding Welch’s well-meaning Jean up against Young’s Carlotta—a hard, determined woman, who wears lipstick as an offensive weapon—is a moment of psychological warfare that must be seen to be understood.

But what about Gordon, the dead man?  Alex Wharff oddly shines as an enigma that unfurls as heinous. Anyone who ever met Wharff will find it more startling to see him in this role—because he is genuinely one of the nicest people in the world. He kind of moves through society like a friendly golden retriever: kind words here, quiet thoughtful acts there, and all with a sweet smile. So to see him play a villain so convincingly is highly disconcerting. He makes Gordon charismatic, desirable and, in a truly freightening way, completely convinced of his own moral authority. If Wharff had made any different choices, it wouldn’t work nearly as well. When the big reveal comes about on what Gordon’s business is, he covers it in such certainty and pride that one has to struggle to remember how evil flourishes. It doesn’t have a flashing warning sign that says, “Run! Don’t walk!”

Meeting the dead man should explain his family, but somehow it doesn’t. We are primed to think his actions should excuse theirs or vice versa. Somehow, between Ruhl and the cast, we find the truth that humanity wants to hide from itself: Other’s awfulness does not excuse or condone our own.

At the pinnacle is the matriarch, Mrs. Gottlieb, the name her daughter-in-law has called her for over a decade. Beside her, in moments of candor, is her surviving son, Dwight. Winner’s unapologetic atrocity and evil cloaked in respectability will make the skin crawl. Audiences will feel confused or vaguely bad for the other surviving family members. But when Gordon’s wife shows her hand about the diamond ring and the lighting fixtures in her house, we understand just for what she has sold her soul.

Gary is not often cast in roles that push her as a performer and really let her showcase what she can do. This one is perfect! She plays a confessing drunk wonderfully, and lays the ground work in the previous scene for her self-centered unburdening quite skillfully. Once we get to the point of understanding that she has come to terms with her own personal price, it is almost heartrendering to watch Jean try to elevate that debased choice.

Though Corvino gives us the most redeeming person in all this, the most deserving of Jean’s good intentions, he is so awkward in the beginning that his goodness seems creepy when contrasted against Gordon’s charismatic evil. He has long since realized, even with family, he is alone in the world, and must make his own happiness and safety.

This is such an odd, and in many ways, rhetorical show. It is amazing to watch this group of people mine it for moments of great humanity. More impressive is how they turn it around and revel in the shallowness of daily life and misfortunes.   

Dallas LaFon designed a highly flexible set that appears to change color, depending upon lighting, mood and which character’s eyes we are seeing through at the moment. It also beautifully and quietly underscores the point that what we notice on the surface and what becomes paramount from a different perspective should neither be confused as gospel. Just a hint of a stained-glass window on the back wall, a pulpit bench and the entire audience breaking the fourth wall is all that is needed for a cathedral.

The issues both overt in the sense of technology and less obvious—Gordon’s business and the innate nature of people—are strikingly relevant in our modern society. The play doesn’t preach one answer over another, but instead invites the audience to join the conversation. Fascinating writing, strong performances and a really wonderfully clear directorial vision all resonate with vital design to create an entertaining and artistically rewarding night at the theater.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone
Sept. 10-13,17-20, 8 p.m.;
Sunday matinees, 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Playhouse • 613 Castle St.
Tickets: $20-$22

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