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In a world that sometimes seems connected only by airwaves between speakers on their cell phones, what would happen if all other communication between family, friends and acquaintances was lost?

The opening scene of "Dead Man's Cell Phone" by Sarah Ruhl '97 MFA'01, running at Trinity Repertory Theatre through March 28, addresses this question when a mysterious diner in a surreally vacant cafe spontaneously keels over in front of his lentil soup.

Annoyed with the stranger's persistently ringing cell phone, Jean, the protagonist and the scene's only witness, answers it on his behalf.

Before she knows it, Jean is a surrogate for the man she comes to know as Gordon, filling in the gaps that his sudden death has left in the lives of his callers.

Through Jean's investigations, embellished with neon lights and paper figures hanging by a clothesline in the background, the Trinity Repertory Company explores the impact of an individual's physical death alongside a culture's psychological one.

The plot thickens as love affairs, family secrets and illegal trade enter the stage, and Jean buries herself deeper and deeper in the lies she tells to comfort Gordon's family.
"I only knew him for a short time, but I think that I loved him in a way," she reflects in church shortly after the incident.

Typical of Ruhl's writing, the script is economical and evocative, incorporating a mixture of humorous, philosophical, sentimental and outright absurd moments. Though the commentary on modern technology's damage to human relations is occasionally a little heavy-handed, the play's otherworldly logic breaks up a somewhat pedantic tone.

In the second act, for example, Gordon reveals to the living that the dead gather naked to wash their laundry every week and kiss with their hair instead of their mouths. He also informs the audience that death is like the soup he had for his last meal — "not as bad as you think it's going to be, but not as good, either."

Beth Milles, director of "Dead Man's Cell Phone" and head of the Brown/Trinity MFA Program in Directing, called the piece "fantastical" yet "very human." The play, she said, deals with themes of "intimacy and reaching."

"It's such a wide journey," she said. "When you start to work on it, many, many layers reveal themselves."

This project has been a challenge for the cast and crew, Milles said, because "it makes us vulnerable ... to dig into our own personal experience to communicate."

Working at Trinity Rep has been "sort of like being part of someone's family, and because Sarah Ruhl came of age here as well, (the company members) feel kind of a protective love for her," Milles added.

Milles said she communicated with Ruhl via e-mail to develop a collective vision of specific moments and characters in the show.

Ruhl, she said, was "very supportive" of Trinity Rep's process. Though it can be hard for playwrights to see their works take on "different resonances" in different productions, "she's open to it," Milles said.

"The goal was to live up to the play," she added. "I think Sarah Ruhl is a fantastic playwright."


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