A ‘Cell Phone’ rings at Kent-Trumbull

For once, the ringing cell phone in the theater will be intentional.

Opening Friday at Kent State University at Trumbull is “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” written by Sarah Ruhl, a Tony Award nominee, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” fellowship.

“Sarah Ruhl has always been on the list of authors I wanted to produce here,” said Eric Kildow, artistic director for the theater department at Kent-Trumbull. “Then it was a matter of looking at her work and what might fit our schedule.”

“Dead Man’s Cell Phone” tells the story of a woman named Jean who is disturbed by an incessantly ringing cell phone in a cafe. As the title hints, that phone belongs to a dead man. When Jean decides to answer the ringing phone, she gets entangled in the life of its owner.

The play is described as a work about how the dead are memorialized and the odyssey of a woman forced to confront her own assumptions about morality, redemption, and the need to connect in a technologically obsessed world.

Kildow said he was drawn to the magical realism of Ruhl’s storytelling.

“She has such a unique way of stating things,” he said. “Sometimes, at first blush, you read her work and think this is sarcasm. You realize it’s even more strange and wonderful if you take it at its word. The characters mean exactly what they’re saying. That’s an energy I wanted to bring to this stage.”

Jean is played by Jennifer Ruth, and the rest of the cast includes Peter Byrne, Jenna Cintavey, Jake Glosser, Kenzie Critzer, Valerie Gilbert, Kirstin Johnson, Justin Pickett and Aisha Khulifat.

“The way the show is structured is almost like a Raymond Chandler novel,” Kildow said. “The hero of the story encounters these colorful characters … There are a lot of two-person scenes where the heroine bounces off of these colorful characters.”

Programming plays by writers like Ruhl exposes students to different theatrical styles.

“It exposes them to a major contemporary playwright from the American canon and at the same time lets them play with a non-realistic style,” Kildow said. “‘Dead Man’s Cell Phone’ is almost more reminiscent of a dream state … The dominant model of American actor training is heavily reliant on realism and naturalism. This is acquainting them with ideas of surrealism and is sort of the first step on how it is applied in the theater.”