Dead Man's Cell Phone
Also see Susan's reviews of Hamlet
Director Rebecca Bayla Taichman has shown an affinity for the works of this playwright: the production of The Clean House she directed at Woolly received the Helen Hayes Award for best resident play. Polly Noonan, appearing in her fifth Ruhl play, joins a company of Washington all-stars in a richly imagined drama where language creates bonds between people.
Noonan is Jean, a young woman sitting at a Chicago café who is disturbed that the man sitting at the next table (Rick Foucheux) is not answering his cell phone. When she confronts him, she realizes that he is dead, and – out of a feeling of responsibility, and as a way to escape her own isolation – begins answering his phone. Gradually, the family members of the deceased man bring her into their circle: his overbearing mother (Sarah Marshall); his chilly wife (Naomi Jacobson); his brother (Bruce Nelson), who loves the permanence of the printed page and shuns cell phones for their ephemeral nature; and, separately, his suspicious mistress (Jennifer Mendenhall).
Ruhl's use of language is both strikingly clear and often unexpected, as when Jean compares the comfort and beauty of heaven to the texture of embossed invitations, or the deceased (whom she eventually meets) notes that both hell and airports can be characterized by the presence of many people not communicating with each other. The key to Jean's motivations, and to the entire play, is her simple statement: "I want to remember everything, even other people's memories."
The actors work together to create an alternative reality not that far from the one people experience every day. Noonan shows how Jean's growing sense of responsibility to the deceased becomes something akin to a religious vocation. Marshall reveals both the fury and the despair of a woman who never expected to outlive her son, and Nelson is sweetly affecting as a man who knows he was never his mother's favorite.
Neal Patel's abstract setting uses a tall, curved brick wall and an off-center window to suggest many things: individual loneliness, the increasingly impersonal nature of life, and ultimately both literal and spiritual imprisonment. The lighting design by Colin K. Bills and Martin Desjardins' sound design help to create a believable illusion.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company