Big Dawg Productions’ artistic director Steve Vernon first became familiar with Sarah Ruhl’s 2007 play “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” after a board member showed him the script in 2013. Big Dawg had just closed their production of Ruhl’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama, “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play,” to rave reviews.
“I enjoyed the pace of ‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone,’ but I really enjoyed the story and the structure,” Vernon tells, “both of which are a bit unconventional. The way the story unfolds really made it an enjoyable read.”
The play follows Jean, a 40-year-old, unmarried female, who happens upon a dead man, Gordon, while sitting in a cafe. When Gordon’s cell begins ringing, Jean is compelled to answer it, and begins exchanges with a slew of people in Gordon’s life, including work colleagues, family and friends and his mistress. Yet, her fascination and loose connection to Gordon doesn’t end there; Jean also attends his funeral.
With a modernly relevant script, Ruhl’s poetic insight captures today’s societal structure of constantly being plugged in. At every turn, a cell phone is apparent from passersby, whether walking down the street, driving in a car or even sitting in a theater.
“A lot of relationships have been boiled down to a cell-phone number or ring tone,” Vernon explains. “We place people in our contacts, and how often we answer or don’t answer certain calls, or what ring we pick up on, are all subtle (or not) cues on how much we value certain people in our lives. The fact that we have to be reminded to turn our cell phones off in certain environments—church, theaters or hospitals—exemplifies how our phones have become extensions of ourselves. It all comes back to how we connect.”
Melissa Stanley—who performed in Big Dawg’s “Dearly Departed” in February and last directed encore op-ed writer Mark Basquill’s play “A Waltz with Flowers” in 2013—is directing the show and its six-person cast. She leads the helm by asking them to be sincere to their characters. Vanessa Welch will play Jean (played by Mary Louise Parker in 2008). Alex Wharff will take on dead man Gordon Gottlieb, and Lori Winner will play Mrs. Gottlieb. Anthony Corvino will bring to life Dwight Gottlieb, and Amanda Young will be Carlotta. Rhoda Gary will play Gordon’s widow, Hermia Gottlieb.
“I have two scenes and they are very different,” Gary tells. “One is very quiet and put together; the other is drunk.”
Gary relates to the show’s unquestionable relevance, especially in watching younger generations’ continual obsession with social media, texting and being glued to screens in general. In rearing a 20-year-old, she sees first hand the disconnect between real life and ease of disassociation from face-to-face interaction.
“I have tried very hard to raise [my daughter] with some cell-phone manners,” Gary notes. “To instill in her that an actual person in front of you is more important than some text message or Facebook post—that just because the thing rings doesn’t mean you have to answer it. I think that’s part of this show’s message. Jean feels compelled to answer the phone, even though it isn’t hers!”
The show begs many thought-provoking questions for Stanley. The misperceptions rising from Ruhl’s thoughtful text make it identifiable.
“Are we all in a perpetual state of mourning?” Stanley rhetorically asks. “Do you love someone from the minute you see them, or can you only truly love them after you get to know them? And who truly knows anyone? . . . The play lends itself to the surreal and we’re utilizing all elements of the production to create a dream-like/ non-reality feel.”
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” opens Thursday, Sept. 3. Big Dawg is known to sell out shows, so it’s advisable to get tickets early.