by David Bradford

With a title like DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE you may not know what to expect. But since it is a dark comedy written by Sarah Ruhl, you know you can expect the unexpected.  Ruhl’s version of realism keeps you guessing, and this particular play does not disappoint.

Tess Pohlhaus and Mike Ware star in DEAD MAN'S CELL PHONE this weekend only at Milburn Stone Theatre in North East MD.

Milburn Stone Theatre’s production, directed by Marshall B Garrett, brings its own unique touches to the show as well. First, the show is done “onstage, backstage”. The curtain of the main stage is drawn and the action takes place backstage “theatre in the round” style with the audience seated in two rows that surround the play area.  It is a perfectly intimate setting that is ideal for this show.  Secondly, much of the show is underscored by live musicians with original music composed for this particular production by J. Andrew Dickenson, who plays the guitar. He is joined by June Suh (piano/vocals) and Stephanie Catinella (cello).  The underscore is powerful and moving yet often transparent, precisely what underscore should be!

The floor of the play area is painted to resemble the circuit board of a cell phone.  The set consists of two square tables and four chairs.  The pieces are moved and rearranged seamlessly numerous times by the cast to create the various scenes called for by the show. Simple, effective and it adds to the overall artistic feel of the show.

The true beauty of the show though is the cast.  Working in an intimate space with such a unique play requires you to be on your game….and they are. The “Dead Man”, Gordon, is played by Mike Ware. Ware’s presence and, dare I say, deadpan looks, brings life to the dead man.  His monologue to open Act II can use a little more depth (and additional volume and attention to diction would help, too).  There is a lot of meat in those particular words and the audience can use a little more time and emphasis to savor them.

Karen Decker, as Gordon’s wife Hermia, shows definite range between the character’s Act I and Act II appearances.  It is a very pleasant surprise, and quite enjoyable.

Serenity Rowland shows particular skill in the art of subtle acting in her portrayal of “The Other Woman”.  She conveys so many different emotions with just her eyes, something usually lost in main stage productions. It’s a beautiful thing when you see it. 

Debra McGuire, as Gordon’s mom, Mrs. Gottlieb, is both funny and strong. I particularly enjoyed the way she incorporates the audience into the funeral scene. Her son Dwight (Ryan Milliner) also proves to be a master of comic timing.  He turns in a great performance that only goes over the top once (first duo scene of Act II).

The show also includes a dance duet at the end. I told you to expect the unexpected. It is performed by two very talented dancers, Kaitlyn Glenn and Tom Manion, and was choreographed by Christi Janney.

The real star of the show is Tess Pohlhaus as Jean, the unassuming, meek woman who discovers the dead Gordon in a café, feels compelled to answer his cell phone for him and help those who are grieving his loss.  The show is really about her journey and Pohlhaus is a great choice for the role.  Jean’s blend of naiveté, quirks, and goodness should be too much to believe, but Pohlhaus makes her so real, a timid 15 year old living inside a 40 year old woman.

There is much more I would love to comment on from the lighting to the clever props, to director Marshall B Garrett’s bold choice in how to begin this show.  I won’t give it away, but I strongly suggest you be in your seat at least 15 minutes before curtain to get the full effect.

The one negative comment I have about this show is that it is only being performed for one weekend.  You only have three more performances to catch it: today, September 10 at 3pm and 8pm, and tomorrow, Sunday September 11 at 3:00 pm.  The show seats just under 100 and it was completely full Friday night!  Call ahead to make sure you can reserve a ticket!  I highly encourage Milburn Stone Theatre to consider an encore weekend of this show sometime later in the season.  It is well worth the trip.

The Milburn Stone Theatre is located in North East, MD, less than a half mile from Exit 100 off I-95. It’s easy to get to. There is plenty of parking and it is a beautiful venue. The show contains some language and adult subject matter.  Consider it PG-13. 

by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Marshall B Garrett
September 8-11, 2011
Milburn Stone Theatre
Cecil College
1 Seahawk Dr.
North East, MD

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