It's doubtful anyone attending Colonial Players' 65th season closer would react with "been there, done that" to playwright Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone."
Having enjoyed a bowl of lobster bisque in a cafe, a young woman answers the ringing cellphone of the man at the next table, who has just died of a heart attack, and she is drawn into the lives of his family and others who call his phone while it is in her possession. In trying to console them, she finds her life changed.
The show, which premiered in 2007, retains its fresh insight into recognizably real people in bizarre situations.
In his director's notes, Tom Newbrough wonders whether the contemporary technology that connects us electronically has created an artificial sense of belonging to something that really doesn't exist. "Even with all of our iPhones, ThinkPads, gadgetry and wizardry, aren't many people still alienated and alone?" he asks.
Ruhl was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 and a 2010 Tony Award nominee. Her awards include the Helen Hayes, the Helen Merrill Emerging Playwrights and a MacArthur Fellowship.
Such honors reflect Ruhl's ability to create quirky characters while poetically and philosophically exploring our 21st-century environment. Her plays have been produced in New York and in major U.S. regional theaters and have been translated into seven languages.
To bring Ruhl's comedy to life, Newbrough has engaged a cast of Colonial Players favorites who are asked to deliver complex, quirky, layered characters.
Among these is Colonial Players royalty: Mary Fawcett Watko — who played Eleanor of Aquitaine in Colonial's "Lion in Winter" — is equally regal as Mrs. Gottlieb, the mother of the departed Gordon.
Watko delivers a tour de force funeral oration, ending with her singing a phrase from "You'll Never Walk Alone" as she exits to a ringing cellphone that interrupts her eulogy. In command while hosting a dinner party scene, her rapier-sharp wit slashes across the dining table where her customary meat course is being served.
As Gordon's widow, Hermia, Jean Berard is properly eccentric, vulnerably detached as she relates the challenging history of her fantasy-obsessed marriage and confides her goal of returning to skating in the Ice Follies.
As the other woman in Gordon's life, Darice Clewell saunters onto the scene, bringing an exotic mystique to this stranger, savoring her sensuality and flaunting her glamour. The part is deliciously captured by Clewell.
Heather Quinn, award-nominated for her roles in "Going to St. Ives" and in "Two Rooms," creates a memorable protagonist in Jean, a Holocaust Museum employee enjoying her lunch when — annoyed at her neighbor's apparent rudeness — she inquires why he's not answering his phone.
When Jean discovers the truth about the other diner and answers the phone, she embarks on a mission motivated by concern for the deceased Gordon's family and friends. It's an adventure that requires increasing finesse as she strays into strange territory inhabited by mystifyingly complex characters.
Jean delivers invented messages from Gordon to everyone, outwitting each as she invents increasingly complex stories for them. As she masterfully relates these tales to Gordon's family and colleagues, Quinn proves a stellar ensemble player.
Nick Beschen is perfectly cast as Gordon's neglected sibling — gentle, nerdy Dwight, the family's least complex character and one who immediately bonds with uncomplicated and kindly Jean. Dwight is comically frustrated by Jean continually interrupting their embraces to answer Gordon's phone.
From his astonishing entrance at the end of Act I to his return in Act II, Jim Reiter delivers a nuanced portrayal of recently departed Gordon, initially expressing his annoyance at Jean's ordering the last bowl of lobster bisque — his last lunch choice. Gordon remains an unapologetic narcissist, and Reiter is so ingratiating that we are captivated by his illusion.
Lending strong support to Colonial's season closer is a production staff that includes lighting designer Shirley Panek, sound designer Richard Atha-Nicholls, set designer Edd Miller, costume designer Christina McAlpine, properties designer Constance Robinson and stage manager Brigette Marchand.
Also joining the players' volunteer ranks this season, and in the tech booth for a recent Saturday performance, was 11-year-old Lauren McLeod, a rare "theater kid" who prefers working behind the scenes. In Colonial Players' pre-eminent volunteer theater organization, young Lauren exemplifies volunteering "for the love of it" with talent and affection for technical artistry.
"Dead Man's Cell Phone" continues weekends through June 28 at Colonial Players Theatre, 108 East St. in Annapolis. For tickets call 410-268-7373 or go to thecolonialplayers.org.