In Sarah Ruhl’s plays, the subject matters may change, but one thing stays constant: nothing is what it seems, and even our closest friends and family, in the end, are unknowable. That conceit, with a technological edge, is the focus of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” opening tonight at SBCC’s Jurkowitz Theatre. Directed by Katherine Laris, this 2007 play cocks an eyebrow at the faith we put in our online selves, and takes its protagonist on a journey of self-discovery.
Jenna Scanlon, who has risen through the ranks of several local companies and productions to land starring roles, plays Jean, a shy and retiring woman who retrieves an incessantly ringing cell phone from a nearby cafe customer only to discover he’s dead. The corpse is played by another one of Santa Barbara’s top actors, Brian Harwell — also Ms. Scanlon’s boyfriend in real life — so we know that while this character may be dead, he hasn’t begun to have his say.
Entangled and intrigued, Jean starts to act like the man’s secretary, and along the way learns about his mother, his estranged wife, a mistress, his brother and his dark career. Jean also tries to bring closure to all the people the man has affected, sometimes with little white lies or great big whoppers, but the man’s history proceeds to make that difficult.
“It has to not seem odd that my character would do this,” Ms. Scanlon says about the opening of the play. “So we had to get that right amount of rings from the cell phone where everybody in the audience wants me to turn it off. She’s trying to write a thank you letter, and also has writers’ block.” For those who have heard a cell phone go off during a play, a lot of people will identify, she says.
“Even though she has a lot of opinions, she keeps them to herself,” says Ms. Scanlon. “She doesn’t interact with a lot of people. She lives in the past.”
But the cell phone “forces her to interact with a lot of people and gain confidence…Of course, she does this by lying, so make of that what you will. By the end she’s very brave … not to mention that she gets into a fight sequence by the end of the play.”
Her opponent is played by Leona Paraminski, the Croatian actress who is a star back in her home country, but is currently in Santa Barbara while her husband does his post doctorate. A veteran of stage and screen, she’s hungry to act while in the States, and so she auditioned for SBCC.
“This is a challenge as English is my second language,” she says. “And this is my first step here . . . I’m amazed how fast they work here. We had a few table reads and then we started rehearsing. In Croatia, we work on the table read a long time.” Plus, says Ms. Paraminski, it’s fun to play a femme fatale.
“Both Jenna and Brian are amazing to work with,” she says.
Which leads us to Mr. Harwell, whose character returns in the middle of the play and gives a devastating monologue that reveals the true nature of this man whose life Jean has only imagined.
“It’s four pages long,” Mr. Harwell says. “But it’s really a lot of fun. These are the kind of monologues you don’t get to do often. And his character and temperament and moral code are very different from mine . . . You get to unhook the leash and you are not restrained by the moral choice. It’s a dip down into the dark side, and you can let it out for a walk.”
“Dead Man’s Cell Phone”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays and Saturday, April 25 and May 2, through May 2
Where: SBCC’s Jurkowitz Theatre
Information: (805) 965-5935, www.theatergroupsbcc.com