Communication breakdown

Trinity Rep answers the Dead Man’s Cell Phone
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  February 16, 2010


As soon as the interview gets going, her cell phone buzzes.

"I'm going to turn off my phone," says Beth F. Milles, who usually keeps it on to be in touch with her kids. "I'm directing a play about how intrusive they are."

That would be Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone, which Trinity Repertory Company is staging through March 28.

The interruption is funny and I know it will make for a great lede, but it becomes spooky when mine — which rings only infrequently — goes off twice before I shut it off.

But the play isn't so much about technology as it is, in large part, about communication: the yearning to do so and the difficulty of accomplishing such these days, as demonstrated by the interruptions. But Milles is wary of facile takes on the play beyond its plot description. "My six-year-old daughter says, 'My mommy's directing Dead Man's Cell Phone. It's a play about a woman who's sitting in a café and a cell phone rings and it's a dead man's phone and she picks it up and her life changes.' And I think that's kind of right."

Milles will go so far as to say she thinks it's "about intimacy or about reaching," but she certainly doesn't want to limit the play to that. "She has ways of looking at realism and ultra-realism that I'm really invested in as a director, too," she says about playwright Ruhl. "Where something can be truthful and real but still be heightened and also fantastical and you never know whether it's real or not. I really love that about theater. So to be able to inhabit a world where that's the investigation is always very exciting."

Ruhl graduated from Brown University in 1997, returning there a couple of years later for an MFA, studying with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel. Her plays are number three in popularity in regional theaters, according to a recent tally. That is no surprise to those who enjoyed her bountiful imagination in the play The Clean House at Trinity Rep in 2007, in which a dirty joke was told in Portuguese, untranslated, and still got the audience to laugh.

"Her works are very human," Milles adds about Ruhl. "They are fantastical, which I love — that's my favorite flavor. But they're very human, too. She is so economical with words, and yet they resonate in so many different ways. Yesterday we were saying how she was talking about marriage at a specific moment in the play and everybody was able to talk about that for quite a long time from just the one word, from the way it was crafted by the playwright."

The day before was the first table read by the cast. Jean, the character who answers the cell phone, is being played by company veteran Janice Duclos, who was the comically stuffy Lady Bracknell when Milles directed Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest at Trinity Rep last spring.

"What we did last year was so completely different," she says of Duclos. "She has a wicked sense of humor and all these great qualities that are so human, that make it an interesting way into this character."

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