Although DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE was recently performed at Forge, it is absolutely worth the trip to see it – or see it again – at Spotlight Theater in Swarthmore. Director Leigh Jacobs created a set and was evocative of everywhere, and nowhere, and specific locations when necessary. The lyrical Sarah Ruhl script and versatile background provided the perfect backdrop for an outstanding cast. Cell phones are referenced throughout the play, as both vital and distancing to communication, and a part of our lives even when they are silent.
Jean (Bridget Dougherty) is the first to be jangled by a ringing cell phone. Carrying the opening scene, Dougherty is earnest and engaging as her relationship with the phone changes from irritated, to flustered, to concerned and then devoted. All within minutes. She is unable to communicate with the man in the cafe, Gordon (John Barker), because, alas he is dead. Nevertheless, Jean establishes a relationship with him through his phone and attends his funeral.
The eulogy is delivered by Gordon’s mother Mrs. Gottlieb (Lauri Jacobs) who clearly has some unresolved issues with her son. Jacobs is deadpan sarcastic and a bit snarky, especially when Gordon’s phone goes off when she is speaking. When she opts to befriend Jean, Jacobs subtly reveals more of Mrs. Gottlieb’s suppressed suffering wondering whether or not her son loved her. Jean is also contacted by a mystery woman (Dana Corvino) who was Gordon’s mistress and business associate. Corvino projects sexiness and confidence yet also has her insecurities about her importance to Gordon. With both woman, Jean chooses to speak for Gordon, creating the personality and dialogue for a man she never met. Through Jean, he is a better communicator dead than he was alive.
At a family dinner, Jean meets the rest of Gordon’s family, wife Hermia (Jess Stinson) and brother Dwight (Eric Rupp). At first unhappy and bitter, Hermia softens up when she ponders Gordon’s ‘gift’ to her, and really opens up once has had a few drinks. Stinson has fun as Hermia lets loose, yet still conveys the hurt and longing that Hermia is hiding behind the loopy behavior. More of Gordon’s thoughtful words, courtesy of Jean, give Hermia some peace.
Brother Dwight is not so easily swayed by soft words. He and Jean realize they share a love of stationery – embossed words and letters that have actual weight and tactile satisfaction. It would be easy to play Dwight as sort of a sad sack, but Eric Rupp gives him more depth. His Dwight has a touch of sadness, but remains a hopeful romantic with a forgiving nature and eyes toward a happy future.
Returning to the past, Gordon opens Act II with his tale of his last moments. The sound and lighting for this moment allow John Barker to truly command this scene. As Gordon, Barker is larger than life, a supremely confident man who makes no apologies and feels no guilt about the decisions he has made. He is nothing like the Gordon Jean has created. It takes finally meeting Gordon for Jean to grasp the value of face to face relationships over the ephemeral connections offered by a cell phone.
In addition to the main cast members, ensemble players Adam Young, Sally Gallagher, Jack Gallagher, Ellen Wilson Dilks, and Dani Kennedy double as stage crew and background characters. The scene with the umbrellas is a great visual and has all the ensemble choreographed at once. The choreographed fight between the two women is brilliant – a bit comic book-y and suggestive of violence without actually being violent. Really well done.
If you go back and read the Forge review, you’ll see that Eric Rupp also appeared in that production – as Gordon. Impossible to pick the ‘better’ production, but easy to note that Rupp was equally impressive in both roles.
DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE runs through May 13th – go see it! There are many shows running right now so you can probably secure ticket to any of them. Put DEAD MAN’S CELL PHONE on your “must see” list!
MN Spotlight Theater 129 Park Ave, Swarthmore PA 19081. Tickets available online ahead of time or at the door. Phone: (610) 328-1079
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